In the battle to avert irreversible climate change, there are many monsters to tackle. A particularly difficult one is large-scale public events. This includes the 23-day Tour de France. 

Being the largest cycling race in the world, a lot of fans are there to witness their favourite rider, scribbling “go Pinot!” on the floor in chalk. But on the other side are fans who say “we are just here for the Caravan”. 

The ‘Caravan’

Image I - The Caravan handing out sweets to excited fans

The caravan is the plastic-conscious environmentalist’s nightmare. Before each stage of the race, a cavalcade of floats proceeds down the race route. Large French fries and galettes (biscuits) on wheels wander down through the crowds. Truly a bizarre sight was looking up from my phone to see a giant marshmallow pass on a mountain road above me. The reason the Caravan is so popular is because of all the goodies it dispenses. Packets of Haribo fall on to the outstretched hands of over-excited children. Bottles of Vittel are handed out to crowds who push and shove each other. Fans are prepared to trample each other and argue for possession of a single Madeline wrapped in plastic. These gifts are amongst the most useful, at least you can consume them. But many are redundant before they hit the floor – examples being car window sun-shades, energy drink powders, cartoon booklets and other random objects that were promptly piled into bins by the fans. In all, over 15 million ‘goodies’ are dispensed by 160 vehicles over the course of the whole tour. This is so extensive the Tour has been named by some the ‘Tour de Plastic’. 

It is not just the Caravan and Fan Parks responsible for rubbish. The Village and other exclusive fan areas are culprits too. The Village is a place at the start of the stage every day which caters to invitees only. It distributes free goods such as food, plastic bags, coffee and more. Much of the food is wrapped in plastic and those attending the village do not pause to take gluttonous handfuls of the packets, knowing full-well they don’t run out. While there is positive change, serving cooked food with biodegradable plastic cutlery, there is still much to aspire to reduce the other plastic served with the food, wine and nic-nacs. There is also the problem of transporting, setting up the Village and other exclusive areas and cooking every day. 

Before the tour, riders and sponsors were told by the ASO (d'Amaury Sport Organisation) who oversee the Tour de France, that they needed to reduce plastic waste. The Caravan sponsors were told to limit their distribution of single use plastics and the riders were told to dispense of their rubbish in demarcated areas. Despite this, the cellophane packets and plastic water bottles piled high in every bin (sometimes not even making the bin) are a sorry sight. 

The Teams and Riders

Image II - Team INEOS at their second press conference of the Tour

Sponsors keep the teams cycling and fully kitted out. The Tour would be impossible without them. But some changes have been worrying. Team INEOS, formerly team SKY, are the British team which houses previous Tour de France winners Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, and current victor Egan Bernal. They were publicly against single-use plastics and for a greener Tour de France. However, after being bought by INEOS, Britain’s largest petrochemical firm, the ethical line seems to have blurred. Not only are INEOS responsible for producing plastic products, but they are advocates of fracking. When initially questioned about the new sponsor, team manager David Brailsford, claimed indifference:

“I’m not an expert in chemicals, I’m an expert in trying to make Chris [Froome] ride his bike faster.

“When I educated myself about this whole area I quickly came to realize that there’s a very simplistic view, but when you dive down you find out there’s a very different view. I’m very comfortable with the situation.”

The British team, due to their multiple victories and celebrity status have ample opportunity to set an example to have a greener race. But perhaps it is easier to feign indifference if your sponsor is giving you millions of pounds each year. 

The ‘other’ Caravan and Fans

Image III - A small part of the hundreds of campervans parked on the sides of mountain roads to watch the Tour de France

Tour de France is epic in proportion, making it accessible to fans all around France. With it being in a different part of France each day, it is both a logistical nightmare but perhaps a well-received economy boost for parts of rural France. 

The race is followed by a convoy of logistics vans, technicians, staff, journalists, equipment vans and more, not including the riders’ own trucks and the Caravan itself. All these vehicles would have travelled over 3500km over the Tour to keep up with the racing. The convoy of support vehicles has become so large that they are no longer allowed to travel on the blocked-off race route, but have to travel an alternate way to minimise traffic. It is impossible to follow and to be a support for the race any other way than to drive. 

This is also true for the fans arriving from around France to support the riders.

“The race is won in the mountains” is a common phrase used by fans and organisers alike. The better riders are better climbers and therefore gain significant time. It is also the most exciting stages for people watching as the scenery in the French Alps is wondrous and the excited fans clamour to park their campervans on the side of the road for a 30 second glimpse of the riders going past. The race is also lost in the mountains as congestion, rubbish and overpopulation puts a sudden and harsh strain on the fragile mountain ecosystem.

Is there any hope? 

After a petition from Paris to end the “avalanche of plastic” present at the Tour de France, there has been effort to change the amount of plastic used. There has been a prevalence of more bamboo and biodegradable cutlery used at the food stations, even if the actual food is served on plastic plates. Recycling bins are also present in the Village and Fan Parks, although there are very few on the roadsides where fans congregate, especially as you head up to the mountains. 

Alex Dowsett, a British rider cycling for Katusha-Alpecin, is hopeful for the future. “There has been a huge reduction in single use plastics in an event like this, there was a meeting before the race about the Caravan not handing out single use plastics. Us riders making sure we throw our bidons [bottles] at spectators, for them it’s a collector’s items. Our gel wrappers - we keep hold of them until the rubbish dump areas.

“The Tour de France is getting better as a single event. If you look at the bigger picture, if it helps get a million people on a bike rather than on a car it has a far greater impact than this event where we are trying to reduce single use plastic anyway. So, I think if the Tour de France can inspire people, can inspire kids to get on bikes rather than using cars, that is a much bigger impact than the comparatively small amount of damage that maybe the Tour does.”

Tour de France could learn from large events such as Glastonbury, which for the first time ever, went plastic free this year. This meant a ban on vendors using single use plastics; plastic water bottles were banned for both selling and for backstage use. While the event was reportedly not totally plastic free, a monumental precedent was set. You can still have a hugely successful event while being environmentally conscious. The Tour de France has an uphill battle because there are many more factors aside from the Caravan and food selling. They have to find a way around the traffic jams and motorists it attracts. They need to find places to recycle plastic, even on mountain roads and find ways for the fans to be more conscious and not clamour for plastic tat just to leave it behind. The teams should take a stand not to be bought by petrochemical companies, but have a hand in dictating the terms themselves. The whole mentality has to change. 

While the Tour de France does have the inspirational value of getting millions on their bikes, it leaves a trail of exhaust fumes and plastic in its wake.