Single use plastic bags are set to disappear from French checkouts by the end of March 2016.
The modern lightweight shopping bag was invented in Sweden. In 1962, a patent for a one-piece plastic shopping bag with an integrated handle and a high load-carrying capacity was filed by the Celloplast company. The innovation quickly caught on and by the mid-1980s throughout the global North plastic bags became ubiquitous for carrying groceries home.
France is only the latest country to try to tackle what today is seen as a major threat to the environment. A new law, part of France’s energy transition bill, was due to come into force on 1 January 2016, a kind of résolution du nouvel an. Its introduction has been delayed because the European Commission called for greater precision in the legislation, making clear the size, weight and type of bags covered by the ban. The bill does not cover plastic bags that are deemed re-usable or biodegradable.
According to a report in Le Monde, many supermarkets have already stopped distributing plastic bags or had planned to do so from the New Year. However, those who ignore the ban will not face penalties until the end of March. An earlier voluntary agreement saw the number of plastic bags distributed at supermarket counters in France decrease drastically from 10.5 billion to 700 million between 2002 and 2011, with a further decrease after the government introduced a tax of around six centimes per bag in January 2014.
In 2008 in a far-sighted move, non-biodegradable polythene bags were banned in Rwanda. At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers’ suitcases and throughout the country businesses have been obliged to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones.
Rwanda is looking to ban other types of plastic and is even hinting at the possibility of becoming the world’s first plastic-free nation. But in a bizarre backlash, a lucrative black market has arisen for the despised plastic bags. However, it shows that where there is a political will, there is a commercial way.
An estimated 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year – 380 billion of them in the USA – and governments have been slow to introduce change. Several countries and cities have tried out bans with varying degrees of success including Australia, India, Burma, Bangladesh, and Mexico City. In many places, plastic bags are subject to a tax that allegedly offsets some of the cost to the environment.
Plastic bags choke wildlife, last for hundreds of years in landfills and oceans, add to the world’s demand for oil, and are difficult to recycle. It would be formidable if every country would emulate this 21st century French revolution. Bon débarras aux sacs en plastique!