Qualms over France’s move to ban plastic bags

turtle eating plastic

Turtles often confuse plastic bags for jellyfish. [save the earth2012 / Flickr]

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.



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.

François-Michel Lambert, a Green MEP from Belgium, said: "Plastic bags symbolise the lack of consequences in our linear economic model - take, consume, discard. Up until now, there was no solution to end the trend that pollutes waterways and oceans, and even affects our health. Yet solutions exist. Italy and San Francisco did it. Action had to be taken, and I am pleased that Ségolène Royal had the courage to do it with the vision of a circular economy.”

"These measures were taken without consultation, cost €300 million, and will increase the price of fruit and vegetables. Such inflation of primary food products will further hinder consumption," said the French Federation of Commerce and Distribution and the UNFD, an organisation that represents fruit and vegetable traders. According to the organisation, the "12 billion bags of fruit and vegetables that are distributed every year are essential for reasons of hygiene and security" and "the positive effect of these measures has not been proven" at an environmental level.

The EU's 2005 Thematic Strategy on the Prevention and Recycling of Waste sets a long-term goal for the EU to become a recycling society that seeks to avoid waste and uses waste as a resource. 

The EU's waste framework directive introduces a binding 'waste hierarchy' defining the order of priority for treating waste.

The waste hierarchy favours prevention of waste, followed by reuse, recycling, and recovery, with waste disposal only a last resort.

To comply with the directive, EU member states are obliged to draw up specific waste management plans after analysing their current waste management situations.

Countries were also required to establish special waste prevention programmes by the end of 2013, in a drive to break the link between economic growth and the environmental impacts associated with the generation of waste.

European Commission

ADEME - French Agency for the environment and energy management

Plastic Marine Litter

  • One big market failure: Systemic look at plastic waste in the light of plastic marine litter - 28 March 2013

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