Is France a lawbreaker or environmental pioneer?

(Photo by Winsome Lau)
(Photo by Winsome Lau)

By Winsome Lau & Hyein Jeong

France aims to be at the forefront of environment protection and energy transition. Since 2012, it took ambitious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by organizing the COP21 and foster renewable energies. In addition, promoting circular economy is at the core of France’s environmental policy.

It is estimated that around 299 million tons of plastics were produced in 2013, representing a 4 percent increase over 2012. And 8 million metric tons of plastic ended up in our oceans.

Therefore, this is why the 2015 Energy Transition for Green Growth Act banned single-use lightweight plastic carrier bags earlier this year and disposable plastic tableware by 2020 at the latest.

Packaging manufacturers challenge France violating free movement of goods

But, not everyone is willing to welcome the new law with open arms.

A European packaging manufacturers trade group, Pack2Go Europe, argues that the ban violates EU law on the free movement of goods. It has urged the European Commission to take legal action against France for disobeying European law.

Generally, the principle of free movement of goods is a key element of the European Union’s internal market. This principle eliminates all remaining obstacles or the national barriers to free movement of goods within EU – creating the internal market in which goods could move as freely as on a national market. It creates openness in the economy.

French MEP opposes the accusation

Virginie Rozière, a French MEP in the European Parliament, in contrast with Pack2go Europe, a Brussels-based association, says that it’s not violating the internal market.

“According to EU law, overriding mandatory requirements may justify limitations to the principle of free movement of goods. Environment protection has been recognized by the European Court of Justice as constituting an overriding mandatory requirement.”

“Since the ban on disposable plastic tableware aims to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity, it is justified in light of EU rules on the free movement of goods.” she said.

Also, she disagrees with the opinion of infringing manufacturer’s rights. She said that some plastic processing companies may suffer from the ban, but it might create new business opportunities for manufacturers of cardboard tableware or organic materials.

Furthermore, she believes the ban won’t frustrate consumers.

“Tableware made of biologically sourced materials may be slightly more expensive than plastic tableware, but there are other cheap alternatives for consumers, such as cardboard tableware.” she said.

(Photo by Winsome Lau)
(Photo by Winsome Lau)

“The law is just a progress but not a solution.”

On the other hand, Zero Waste Europe, a European coalition which aims at eliminating waste in Europe, thinks this law is just a progress but not a solution.

Delphine Lévi Alvarès, the policy officer says, “It’s just a foot in the door, we can go much further than that.” The limitation of this measure is that it is not completely banning plastic packaging.

But she understands that this is not the problem of France, it is because the plastics tableware we buy with food is considered as packaging under EU regulations and France cannot ban it. And they are reviewing the packaging directive now.

“The internal market rules prevent us from banning those items on an international level,” she explains. For example, if we just ban plastic cups in coffee shops in France but not in other countries, it is a disturbance of competition.

Delphine expects someday EU countries can completely ban plastics to avoid waste. “We should not just replace it by biological and compostable items, our final mission should go for reusable instead of single use.”

NGO warns the industry taking their responsibility

Delphine Lévi Alvarès, Product Policy Officer of Zero Waste Europe (Photo by Winsome Lau)
Delphine Lévi Alvarès, Product Policy Officer of Zero Waste Europe (Photo by Winsome Lau)

She also warns of misleading consumers to think it’s okay to leave new forks or spoons all over the place.

“It’s nonsense. If people litter on the street, it cannot be recycled. It will be all sent to landfills at the end of the day.”

She claims that the industry really has to take their responsibility and appends a label to items to raise awareness of the fact that ‘It cannot be compostable if you leave in the beach’.

The Greens shows confidence towards the law

Margrete Auken, Member of The Greens, has the same view as Zero Waste Europe. “A law like the French one is only a start. But it’s very important because it sends a strong signal that it’s possible to make changes to consumption patterns.

She has heard American consumers asking for the same thing after the French ban. However, she thinks it is not realistic that the current Danish government will launch the same law.

Brussels is in a decisive period

 (Photo by Winsome Lau)
(Photo by Winsome Lau)

“It’s a very interesting moment in Brussels because we’re in the process of reviewing the waste directive,” Delphine says.

The policy officer explains that banning disposable plastic tableware in France will definitely influence other European countries as the commission is working on the plastics and circular economy strategies recently. The other main point of the act is circular economy – maximizing the value creation by reducing the amount of waste.

Annette Schneider Nielsen, the environment counsellor of the Permanent Representation of Denmark to the EU, appreciates the intention of the law.

The healthy debates make other member states take the law as an example and start thinking what kind of framework they want.

“We have to be much more ambitious in the future.”

 (Photo by Winsome Lau)
(Photo by Winsome Lau)

Delphine is positive towards the zero waste development in Europe, “It’s well-engaged and we can see many good ideas.” And more proposals submitted by the MEPs are going to be discussed in the coming months.

“But we have to be much more ambitious,” she emphasizes. Zero Waste Europe will continue to communicate with the commission and improve environmental regulations and framework in the future.

Virginie Rozière agrees her country is definitely one of the most environmentally friendly EU countries. She believes that France can encourage other EU countries to conduct campaigns against plastic goods by giving the lead and proposing even more ambitious plastic-free goals.

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