The French government wants to ban single-use plastic bags by 2016, years ahead of a European directive. But replacing them with biodegradable packaging makes it equally problematic, EurActiv France reports.

The surprising amendment was adopted on 25 June by the French parliament and aims to ban plastic bags by 2016. In its attempt to reduce the plastic bags’ negative environmental impact, France is pushing through a law that is more ambitious than European Union efforts.

 

Ambitious

The European policy on plastic bags wants to ban them in phases, by gradually reducing their consumption. The European Parliament adopted a directive in April to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic bags by 50% by 2017 and 80% by 2019.

>> Read: EU move to end use of thin plastic bags gathers steam

This directive is likely to become part of the Circular Economy package, which the Commission will propose next week.

The key motivation behind the French law is to protect biodiversity. "It involves replacing single-use plastic bags - which lead to appalling pollution, notably marine pollution that destroys fragile species - with decomposable or biodegradable bags," said France's environment minister, Ségolène Royal.

The Commission says that 94% of seabirds absorb pieces of plastic bags over their lifetime. This is a serious threat to certain species. Biodiversity is also the main argument used at the European level to reduce and eventually ban the use of plastic bags.

Biodegradable bags slow to decompose

Environmental NGOs argue however that biodegradable bags are not the solution and may actually contribute to the problem.

"Of course, banning plastic bags is a step in the right direction," said Piotr Barczak from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). "However, the idea of replacing them with biodegradable bags makes no sense for two reasons. One, we have to change the structural habits of consumption. Two, biodegradable bags do not decompose, especially in a marine environment. They have to be collected separately and certainly not mixed with other recyclable plastics," he said, which is complicated.

According to a study, biodegradable plastic bags in a marine environment only decompose 3-10% over a period of seven weeks, which means the same serious consequences for biodiversity as traditional plastic bags. The classic example of the risks associated with plastic bags floating in the world's oceans is turtles confusing them for jellyfish.

The idea of banning plastic bags and replacing them with biodegradable bags has already been adopted in Italy. This created new market opportunities, especially for corn producers because corn is a key ingredient in so-called "biodegradable" bags.

Countries in Northern Europe have gone down different paths. Plastic bags are not banned in Germany or Ireland, but cost the consumer a set amount of money. This system is considered a huge success, as it changes people's consumption habits.