Bid adieu to plastic picnics | James Harrington

Something to consider when you next buy a cup of lukewarm coffee-ish liquid from a vending machine: in France alone, an estimated 4.73 BILLION single-use plastic cups are thrown away every year.

1 October 2016
By James Harrington

These cups are not biodegradable. Worse, some scientists believe they could even be bad for our health.

France has recently become the first country to do more than just tut about this. In a bid to cut pollution and change picnics forever, it has banned single-use cups — along with disposable knives, forks, spoons and plates. By 2020, these products must be made from biologically sourced materials that can be composted domestically.

You may not have heard of this law before now. It was a little-known part of a green energy transition bill that was passed in 2015 and came into force in the summer.

Far from welcoming this news, many seem unimpressed. Haven’t the French got more important things to think about than plastic spoons?, critics demand. Is this the most pressing issue the country faces right now? they wonder.

Of course it’s not. The most pressing issues would be — in no particular order — multiples of the following: security, the fragile economy, the refugee crisis, unemployment, education and [insert a serious problem of your choice here]. Pick two from three of the above, then add a few more.

No one is denying that plastic spoons come a long way down the list of big issues facing France. But that does not mean the legislation is wrong, or that it should be put on hold until some unspecified time in the future when everything, apart from the plastic spoon situation, is rosy.

Pack2Go Europe, a Brussels-based lobby group that represents packaging manufacturers, has called on the European Commission to take France to court for infringing European law on the free movement of goods, and warned that, — if they don’t, we will’. It argues there is no proof bio-sourced disposable cutlery is more environmentally friendly, and says no products made from bio-sourced plastics degrade in a domestic composting unit. Yet some manufacturers are experimenting with starch, vegetable fibres and proteins as possible alternative materials. One is even testing flour.

Pack2Go Europe worries that people, used to many years of picking up after themselves when they eat al fresco, will in 2020 suddenly decide that they can cast their dining implements into the wild with carefree abandon because they will be made from — bio-sourced plastics’.

Other, unspecified, critics also insist that product bans do nothing but — hurt consumers’ — though they fail to explain why. Maybe they fear hospitals’ A&E departments will be overwhelmed by a summer influx of hernia cases caused by people picking up heavier-than-normal picnic hampers containing knives, forks and plates from home; or a rise in nasty scalds when office workers forget not to place a suitable container under the vending machine dispenser every time they want a cup of coffee-ish.

That said, environment minister Ségolène Royal was reportedly concerned that a ban would unfairly harm low-in- come families who — apparently — use single-use cutlery more than anyone else. This is why the law gives producers until 2020 to develop alternatives. The initial proposal, by the green EELV party, wanted the ban in place in 2017.

No one batted an eyelid when, earlier this year, France joined the increasing list of countries to ban single-use plastic bags. This is the next step. France is the first country to go over the top — and rather than copping all this flak, it should be hailed as an environmental hero.

This column was written by James Harrington, who has lived in France since 2009.

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