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26/09/2016

The hidden economic benefits of banning plastic bags

Climate & Environment

The hidden economic benefits of banning plastic bags

Plastic bags take hundreds of years to decompose.

[Newtown grafitti/Flickr]

With its incremental ban on single-use plastic bags, the French government has given a substantial boost to the country’s organic plastics companies. EurActiv’s partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

The French Ministry for the Environment published a decree on Wednesday (30 March) limiting the use of single-use plastic bag. Established under article 75 of the Energy Transition for Green Growth bill, this measure was supposed to enter into force on 1 January. But the new restrictions will now apply from 1 July.

France postpones plastic bag ban for six months

Originally scheduled for 1 January 2016, the ban on single-use plastic bags in France will be put off until 1 July 2016, to give shopkeepers and suppliers time to use up their stock. EurActiv France reports

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Contrary to what it stated in its press statement, the French government has not “put an end to the distribution of disposable plastic bags”. But it has imposed a change in the make-up of the plastic bags that will be used.

As of 1 July this year, the distribution of “single-use plastic bags”, defined as bags thinner than 50 microns (0.05 millimetres), will be banned at shop tills. “And on 1 January 2017 the second stage of the measure will come into operation, with a ban on the use of these bags elsewhere in supermarkets, for weighing fruit and vegetables, at the cheese counter, the butcher or the fishmonger,” said Baptiste Legay, a director in the French Ministry of the Environment’s waste and circular economy department.

Possible replacements

While Legay wants to encourage consumers to use tote bags or multi-use plastic bags, it is clear that this alone will not be enough to achieve the government’s environmental aims. This has led to the idea of obliging producers to create “biosourced” bags; to add more vegetable-based plastics in their traditional resins. The proportion of biosourced material in French plastic bags should grow from 30% in January 2017 to 60% by 2025.

Patriotic plastics?

Officially, the rationale behind the new rules on plastic bags is strictly ecological: to reduce the number of plastic bags that pollute the environment and end up in the oceans by making them compostable. “These new biosourced bags will be compostable at home, which will place France on the right tracks towards a circular economy: what comes from the earth returns to the earth,” said Christophe Xavier Doukhi de Boissoudy, the director-general of Novamont France, a bioproducts company.

But behind this drive for home composting hides another agenda: 90% of the single-use plastic bags currently distributed in France are imported from Asia.

The make-up of the bags that will be permitted, once this decree comes into force, will mean they will start to decompose at around 26°C. In other words, cargoes of biosourced plastic bags from Asia that meet the new French requirements would not arrive unscathed from a journey of several weeks in a sun-heated shipping container.

John Persenda, the owner of Sphère, the European leader in plastic films and bags, could not disguise his pleasure. “We just know our Asian competitors are going to kick up a fuss,” he said.

New markets

French and European companies hope to turn the situation to their advantage by “re-localising” production. Plans are on the table for several new factories in France, which the producers claim will create 3,000 direct and indirect jobs.

Biosourcing materials for plastic bags will also provide new markets for producers of corn, wheat and potato starch, whose importance to the paper industry is waning. After processing, this polysaccharide will be mixed with biodegradable polyester to form the raw material for home compostable plastic bags. The industry will consume 12,000 tonnes of the product each year, or 0.72% of France’s annual non-food production.