It is predicted that there will be more plastic bags than fish in our oceans by 2050 – World Economic Forum (WEF).

We’ve heard this horrific stat time and time again, but no one seems that fussed in Europe – except France. France has made a stand once again. First they tried to tackle food waste, and now they’re attempting to rid the country of disposable plastic.

A law was passed in July 2016 totally banning plastic bags from check-out counters in shops and this will extend to plastic bags in fruit and vegetable sections of supermarkets by 1st January 2017. Much like Morocco’s plastic bag ban, it’ll take years to phase it out entirely. To top this, France is trying to pass a law to ban all disposable plastic utensils – including cups, cutlery and plates – by 2020. This should give manufacturers time to adjust to biodegradable and compostable alternatives.

The reaction to this brave movement has received mixed emotions to say the least.

Oceans aside, France discarded 4.73 million plastic goblets in 2015 and supermarkets use 17 million plastic bags annually. For all you consumers and packaging manufacturers out there, that is a lot of rubbish. But there is a fear that using biodegradable material will only worsen the country’s litter problem. Will consumers be more likely to throw their packaging out into the streets than before? The main focus revolves around bio-sourced materials that our compostable. This is not necessarily effective in cities, but the more pressing issue is that the breakdown of material takes time. If you can educate a population on the right disposal methods, we wouldn’t have to worry, but that could be just as effective as telling a child not to eat candy.

Furthermore, when looking into how products impact the environment, a full analysis of energy consumption and emission during the whole life cycle should be considered. Glass, for example, can be more wasteful in production and after use than disposable plastic cups in terms of energy. A compostable solution may create a cradle-to-cradle life cycle – which is ideal – but there is no proof that bio-sourced products will actually be beneficial to the environment due to original energy consumption in the manufacturing process.

Now for the manufacturers’ complaints. There are three main issues here: violating European manufacturers’ rights, expense and technical difficulty. Many packaging manufacturing firms, particularly those based outside of France, are trying to get the European Commission to take legal action. The other side of things are more technical. Materials will, at least initially, be more expensive to manufacture and thus product prices will rise. Then you have the problems of hot food and drink. It is incredibly hard to make bio-sourced material cope with heat. Innovation is key here, in fact, I previously wrote about Narayana Peesapaty solution to disposable cutlery in India. It is a question of taking that forward thinking approach to packaging, cups and plates.

Phasing out plastic is part of France’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act – an act to make France a world leader in adopting more environmentally friendly practices and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But environment aside, heating plastic is rumoured to be detrimental to our health. Whether this was another element of the act, I don’t know, but it is also a great reason to move away from plastic in products like ready-meals.

We produce 20 times more plastic than we did half a century ago and it’s predicted to triple in the next 20 years. That’s primarily plastic for packaging. France is taking a huge risk here, but it is a risk we should all be taking to keep our streets clean, improve our health and, probably the most important reason, to try and sort out our planet. 

People! This is a huge opportunity for designers, engineers and scientists to band together to reimagine the manufacturing industry, make something that will seamlessly enter our everyday lives and impact the world hopefully for the better.

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