France leads the way in banning single-use plastic

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As issues relating to pollution and climate change continue to grip the popular consciousness, politicians and other interested parties are increasingly coming up with new ideas and policies around plastic waste recycling to minimise the impact of human activity on the environment.

The UK placed a 5p charge on every plastic bag used by consumers in supermarkets, with impressive results.

The French have gone one step further in the last few months, however, by banning all plastic shopping bags. What’s more, steps are now being taken to extend that ban to cover disposable plastic cutlery and dishes. This puts France head and shoulders above the rest in the struggle against plastic pollution. Experts argue that in addition to the obvious effects of reducing disposable plastic use and pollution, such bans also inculcate new attitudes and behaviours towards the environment among the affected populations.

Plastic bags – a thing of the past?

France’s tough approach to plastic bags contrasts with other states, including the UK, which have instead opted for a soft ‘minimal charge’ policy to try to encourage consumers to change their behaviour in a particular direction. Covering all bags with a capacity of 10 litres or less and a thickness of no more than 50 microns, the ban includes common plastic bags with handles and even biodegradable bags.

By 2017, this definition will include the plastic bags used to package fruit, vegetables and meat in supermarkets, the time delay having been introduced to allow manufacturers time to adapt to the changes. The law mandates the replacement of these plastic bags with ‘domestically compostable’ packaging produced from bio-sourced materials.

Extending the ban

Emboldened by the success of the plastic bag ban, the French legislature recently elected to extend the ban to include all disposable plastic cups, glasses, plates and cutlery. The law will come into effect in 2020, by which time retailers and manufacturers alike should have adjusted their processes so that any disposable products are made from biologically sourced materials and are capable of being composted domestically. This last point is important as most ‘bio-degradable’ plastic at present cannot be composted at home and must be sent to a municipal plastic waste recycling centre for processing.

Understandably, the French decision hasn’t been received with universal support. The law was originally intended to come into force in 2017 but was postponed after initial criticism from Environmental Minister, who was said to be concerned that the ban would be ‘anti-social’ to families struggling financially as such families make ‘regular use’ of plastic disposable tableware.

Representatives of the packaging industry were less than enthusiastic, decrying the ban as a violation of European laws governing the free movement of goods. Pack2Go Europe, a packaging industry organisation based in Brussels, voiced fears that similar laws may be adopted by other European countries, urging the European Commission to review whether or not EU free trade regulations had been violated.

With strong feelings on both sides of the debate, it’s clear that all parties will be watching France closely over the next couple of years to monitor the effects and results of the ban on disposable plastic utensils. The development of alternatives to single-use plastic could spur innovation in many unexpected avenues, including but not limited to plastic waste recycling.

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