What you need to know about France’s ban on plastic bags

Plastic bags are banned in France as of today, July 1st, although it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

What you need to know about France's ban on plastic bags
Photos: AFP

First of all give us the numbers.

Some 17 billion plastic bags are used in France each year and around 8 billion are just discarded “in nature” says France’s Environment Ministry.

Some five billion of these bags are handed out at check-outs and 12 billion are for fruit and veg.

An average plastic bag takes one second to make, is used for roughly 20 minutes and takes up to 400 years to degrade naturally.

To put France into some kind of comparison, our friends in the north up in Denmark and Finland use four plastic bags per inhabitant per year, in France we use 80. Although in Poland they use 400.

Are all plastic bags banned from July 1st?

No, far from it, the ones that are subject to the ban are the single use, fairly flimsy, often see-through plastic bags, that some supermarkets and grocery stores hand out at the check-out. These include even the bio-degradable ones and the plastic bags with handles.

To be more specific the law says that the ban covers bags with a capacity “smaller than 10 litres and with a thickness less than 50 microns” – otherwise known as the “common plastic bag”.

So what can we use?

Well many supermarkets like Monoprix have already brought in paper bags, although at a small charge. Re-usable plastic bags of the more sturdier kind can also still be handed out at supermarkets in France, although they will also set you back a few centimes.

A mark will need to be placed on the bag to show that it is “a bag that can be reused and should not be discarded in the environment”.

Little bags you get for fruit and veg in markets can still be used, although they too will be banned from January 1st 2017, as will the little plastic bags to wrap meat or fish.

The law also currently plans to authorise “domestically compostable bags made in full or in part from bio-sourced materials,” which should replace plastic fruit and vegetable packaging in January 2017.

So what shops will have to enforce the ban?

Basically, all stores from supermarkets, corners shops, fruit and veg shops (but not the little bags as mentioned above) petrol stations, you name it.

So it’s an all-round positive move, with no negative knock-on effects what so ever?

Errr, not quite. For a start food industry chiefs and retail unions have estimated that the cost of the ban could be €300 million and warned that customers would end up paying with a rise in the price of groceries.

Some stores are said to have massive stocks of plastic bags because they often pay for two-years worth of supplies to bring the price down. At one point the government suggested stores could sell their stocks of plastic bags back to the state, but this provision was eventually dropped from the law.

The Federation of plastics has also warned that the move threatens 3,000 jobs in the recycling industry.

Other critics say plastic bags will now just have to be made thicker even though the aim of the law was to reduce consumption of materials.

Another issue is that plastic bags made from organic matter may still contain up to 60 percent fossil-based materials, at least until 2017, but these apparently complicate the recycling process in France, which is hardly the most advanced in Europe.

There are also concerns that shops will simply import cheap paper bags from abroad to replace the plastic bags, which will also have a negative impact on the environment.

So why is it being brought in again?

Well basically because a lot of the plastic bags we toss away or let the wind blow away when we’re not looking end up in the oceans, which is catastrophic for marine life.

Particles of plastic are ingested by fish, which then end up on our plates and in our stomachs. A lose-lose situation all round.

The EU, those pesky bureaucrats in Brussels who care for the environment, are putting all countries under pressure to reduce the consumption of plastic bags.

Today France played its part.

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Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.