Disposable society, we bid you adieu. Why France has banned plastic plates and cutlery

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2016, 2:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2016, 2:47pm

France has become the first country in the world to ban plastic plates, cups and utensils, passing a law that will go into effect in 2020. Exceptions will be allowed for items made of compostable, biosourced materials.

The new law is a part of the country’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, the same legislation that also outlawed plastic bags in grocery stores and markets beginning in July. Although plastic bags are forbidden in other countries - including in some US states - no country seems to have embraced a plastic ban as sweeping as France’s will be.

The general idea behind the law - following the landmark conference held in Paris last fall on curbing global warming - is to promote a “circular economy” of waste disposal, “from product design to recycling,” French lawmakers say.

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Objections to plastic as a material are well known. For one, it does not biodegrade and only breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, which pose a significant danger for wildlife that cannot always distinguish it from food sources, particularly in oceans. Aside from ecosystem disruptions, millions of barrels of oil are used every year in manufacturing plastic bags and utensils, playing what environmental activists call a significant role in climate change.

In the words of French President François Hollande, the ban is part of a larger push intended “to make France . . . an exemplary nation in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, diversifying its energy model and increasing the deployment of renewable energy sources” - starting, it would seem, with the forks and knives distributed at fast-food restaurants and the coffee cups in vending machines.

Not all share the enthusiasm of France’s Socialist government, which has made environmental progress one of its main goals. In Brussels, some argue that the laws violate existing European Union legislation regarding the free movement of goods and the protection of manufacturers.

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Eamonn Bates, the secretary general of Pack2Go Europe, a Brussels-based association that represents packaging manufacturers on the continent, told The Associated Press that his organisation will challenge France’s ban.

“We are urging the European Commission to do the right thing and to take legal action against France for infringing European law,” he said.

“If they don’t, we will.”

Supporters of the ban wanted it to be introduced earlier, possibly as soon as 2017. But Ségolène Royal, the French environment minister, had initially considered it an “anti-social” provision, on the grounds that low-income families relied on plastic utensils and plates.

The ban was then postponed until 2020.