French ban on plastic packaging risks jeopardising circularity efforts

French ban on plastic packaging risks jeopardising circularity efforts

The ban neglects supermarkets’ initiatives in creating loops for a range of products to recycle plastic packaging.

It has been over a month since French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron’s ban on plastic packaging for large numbers of fruits and vegetables came into force. Whilst it is too soon to establish just how effective this new policy is, we should be more concerned by the potential wider impact this new law may have.

In responding to consumers outcry to the overuse of plastic packaging, President Macron appears to be ignoring the data that indicates they could face a serious increase in food waste due to reduced shelf-life if plastic packaging is removed.

Furthermore, this ban neglects supermarkets’ initiatives in creating loops for a range of products to recycle plastic packaging, such as films and bags. If anything it almost implies that all the efforts around educating consumers and setting up tailored sites to return packaging have failed.

The French government points to over-wrapped fruit and vegetables as an ‘aberration’, yet so too are our excessive rates of food waste which needs to be reduced and not increased. What they could point to instead is the tendency for supermarkets to encourage consumers to purchase too much of one product by clustering the product in one large pack.

Allowing consumers to select the correct amount to meet their rate of consumption is more sensible and would limit food waste at home.

The world’s food waste stands at 1.3 gigatonnes annually, according to a UN report. This is something that France has been actively aiming to address;  in 2016 France became the first country in the world to prohibit supermarkets from throwing away unused food through unanimously passed legislation, yet food spoilage continues to represent a massive environmental problem, around the world.

Whilst a number of factors are responsible for food waste, adequate packaging plays a vital role in reducing this issue in the supply chain and increasing product shelf life. As  such banning it outright may prove to be a knee-jerk reaction that ultimately could cause more environmental harm than good given that one ton of food waste prevented could save 4.2 tons of CO2 equivalent

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) calculated that the plastic wrap on a cucumber traveling from Spain to Switzerland makes up 1% of the cucumber’s total environmental footprint. Because the plastic helps the cucumber last longer, the total benefit from preventing food waste is actually five times greater than the environmental impact.

Australian research backs this up with trials highlighting the practical reasons for using packaging for certain fresh produce, whether it be to ensure product integrity in the supply chain or extend shelf life and, as a consequence, avoid food waste. Many items of fruit and vegetables such as cut salads, herbs, celery, mushrooms etc deteriorate simply due to moisture loss during storage. This is where plastics can be very effective in extending shelf life and reducing food waste.

President Macron’s stance comes across as an aggressive ban on plastic as the ‘enemy’, when in fact we need to take a holistic approach that examines all facets of the issue.

Key is to achieve a balance rather than skewing in one direction or the other. Any solution we adopt needs to be carefully thought-through and all impacts of this solution need to be well evaluated.

There is no doubt we must all work towards reducing packaging where we can, without jeopardising the products it is designed to protect. There is a real case for sensible deselection of many plastics that are currently being used with little purpose other than to display the merchandise and transport it home and consumers should certainly be given the opportunity to buy the correct amount for timely consumption.

Every element of the pack needs to be considered from the most effective storage and protection both in the store and at home, particularly during the pandemic when it could help reduce contact and therefore contamination, through to ensuring the packaging can be readily recycled or reused.

We also need to address what other types of packaging are likely to be used to replace the plastic equivalent. Will we start seeing an increase in paper and cardboard packaging? In which case is the infrastructure to manage this increase in place?

To be truly transformational we can’t afford to overlook every aspect of the plastics packaging issue – weighing up its benefits as well as its downsides to find  solutions that consistently reduce our carbon footprint at every touchpoint.

There is certainly nothing to be gained in the long term in setting out drastic new laws to ‘appear’ to be doing the right thing when in fact we redress one imbalance only to cause another one elsewhere.

This story first appeared on Sustainability Times


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