Hundreds of plastic tubs of expired tapenade, rotting fruits and vegetables, unsold frozen goods – this is what walkers and cyclists found on nature paths in northern France between August 16 and 20. Photos and videos they shared on social media have garnered attention, leading to online outrage and a police investigation. The culprit has been revealed to be a volunteer from an association, tasked with donating the expired items to a farm. 
 
The first reports emerged on August 16, when two residents each came across different deposits of expired goods near the town of Estrun. Three separate piles of trash were reportedly found along the paths beside canals west and south of the town, adding up to about 1000 discarded containers

Photos of piles of discarded containers of black olive tapenade were posted to Facebook on August 16. 

On August 16, a video posted to Facebook shows piles of unsold tapenade containers along a path on the banks of a canal. 

‘To see so much tapenade is really strange’
 
Local resident Clark Didier Vilcot told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that he came across these discarded goods along the Escaut canal on August 16:
 
I scheduled a bike ride and the itinerary goes along the banks of the Escaut and the St. Quentin canals. When I arrived at the bridge of the freeway, I came across this deposit. Looking more closely, I saw that it was Puget black olive tapenade. What surprised me is that tapenade is not something we consume in the north of France. To see so much of it is really strange. During nature walks it is common to come across construction debris, but food is not common.

Another dump site found

Around 20km away, in the forest of Mormal, a member of the Mormal Forest Association found another pile of discarded products in the forest on August 18. The association sounded the alarm on their Facebook page. There was one clear similarity with the products found near Estrun – piles and piles of expired containers of tapenade. Police estimated that the waste in the forest added up to one and a half cubic metres. 

The association also realised that the majority of the products found in the forest were expired products from the French supermarkets Carrefour and Leclerc.

A photo posted to the Mormal Forest Association Facebook page on August 18 shows many containers of the same brand of tapenade dumped in the Mormal Forest. (Source: Association Mormal Forêt Agir/Facebook)

A photo posted to the Mormal Forest Association Facebook page on August 18 shows several cases of Carrefour-brand sandwiches. (Source: Association Mormal Forêt Agir/Facebook)

Mormal Forest Association President Benoit Tomsen reported the pollution to the local police and contacted Carrefour:
 
Carrefour reacted immediately, saying they were looking into it and investigating. So we gave them everything. We sent  pictures of all the barcodes and all the barges on the crates, the reference numbers, so that we could trace it back.

Since 2016, French supermarkets are required by law to donate their unsold food to charities or food banks. According to AFP, both Carrefour and Leclerc condemned the acts of pollution and began their own internal investigations to find the source of the dumped products. Carrefour added that it would “offer to cover the costs of removing the products".

The culprit found

The police in Avesne-sur-Helpe, taking over investigations from the police in Cambrai, where the other piles of trash were reported, were soon able to trace the products back to a wholesaler using their barcodes. The products, unsold, had been donated to a charity association in Valenciennes. The association, which received the products too late to distribute them to beneficiaries before expiration, had to send the products to a farm to be used as animal fodder.

On August 21, following the media attention after photos of the products were posted on social media, the person responsible turned himself in to the police. The perpetrator is a volunteer with the charity association who was supposed to transport the products to a farm near the forest of Mormal. Unable to get in touch with the farm’s owner, he instead left the expired products in several locations. He faces a fine of up to €1,500.

French media outlet La Voix du Nord reported that he admitted to dumping the expired products on his own. The prosecutor has not released the name of the association he worked with, in case they were not involved. 

‘It could have done a lot of damage’

Benoit Tomsen feared the impact these discarded products could have had on the local wildlife:
 
We've lost a lot of biodiversity in the last few decades and we feel that what we have left, we need to hold onto. You can’t imagine for a moment that someone would take waste like that, food waste, and throw it into a forest that still has deer and lots of wild boar. It wouldn't be right for all these animals to come across all these plastics. With hundreds of containers of tapenade, wild boars are going to rip up the containers to eat the tapenade but they're going to eat the plastic at the same time. If a boar eats plastic, it's not going to be in great shape for a very long time. It could have done a lot of damage.

The municipality of Avesne-sur-Helpe cleaned the trash from the forest without delay, preventing any further damage to the flora and fauna of the region. However, Tomsen believes that this shouldn’t be the end of people’s concern for the forest.
 
In this case, it really stirred up the press. The real ecological danger, though, it’s here, it’s in front of people’s eyes. It’s the dozens of trees that fall every day, and astonishingly, it gets less attention than one and a half cubic metres of waste. It’s time to stop, to recover a bit of biodiversity, and to calm down when it comes to cutting trees. There are real problems, much more deep and strong and alarming that are there. We have to take care of them too.


Article written by Pariesa Young