Implications of France’s Ban on Disposable Plastic Cutlery
In an effort to reduce environmental damage and carbon footprint, France is the first country to ban disposable plastic cutlery. The directive suggests that plastic utensils be replaced with eco-friendly products made with 50% biodegradable, compostable, and biologically sourced material, by January 2020. In context, this regulation supports France’s “Energy Transition for Green Growth Act,” that is considered to be an overarching law adopted in 2015 targeted at minimizing climate change issues.
The regulation puts pressure on the manufacturers of such cutlery to invest in the development of novel products with bio-based biodegradable content and introduce them by 2020. Moreover, the booming take-out, delivery, and food service & catering industry is deeply concerned about the detrimental impact this regulation will have on its revenues.
Pack2GO Europe, with its headquarters in Brussels, is the first organization to react and oppose this ban, saying that the ban violates the European Union laws on the free movement of goods. Pack2GO Europe is the industry association that represents Europe’s top food-packaging manufacturers.
The French regulation refers to disposable plastic products that have become notorious for their ability to increase litter, pollute the environment, and even pose risks to land and marine life. While these products are at the heart of the flourishing catering, take-out and delivery food service business, they are also in most cases thrown away rather than recycled, and thus likely to end up in landfills.
The Pros and Cons of Disposable Plastic Cutlery
Reasons for the Popularity of Disposable Plastic Cutlery
The reasons for the rise in plastic cutlery usage (and thus, an environmental concern) are as below:
1. Disposable cutlery are usually manufactured from polystyrene or styrofoam that is difficult to recycle and thus less likely to be part of a municipal recycling program. Even if the item is made of recyclable plastics, the convenience factor cannot be dislodged by revisiting the traditional concept of reusable metal or ceramic cutlery.
2. The overarching concept of disposable plastic cutlery is driven by fast modern lifestyles demanding convenience, and suggesting that they be replaced by reusable silverware, steel, or ceramic utensils for take-outs and delivery is not practical for the consumers who have adapted to plastic cutlery. The very idea of convenience (saving time, food on the go, not having to clean or wash after use, and just toss them into the trash along with leftover food, debris, and grease) is too powerful for consumers, and take-out and delivery food service providers, to ignore.
3. Too many consumers and food service businesses are already well oriented to easier, less stress-free lifestyles, family picnics and vacations, community get-togethers, and events that need quick and convenient food and beverage service to its members. Disposable cutlery make all this possible, as the end users are likely to be people that have very tight schedules and not being able to attend to dish-washing or even recycling efforts.
4. Many end users of disposable cutlery are those who do limited cooking, eating, and serving at home, and some of them (due to lifestyles or work environments) do not even have time or the inclination to sit through dining in a restaurant. Rather than being a challenge, this is seen as an opportunity for all types of restaurant owners (including fine-dining) as additional revenue through take-outs and deliveries. Many eateries and restaurants have limited seating arrangements compared to the demand, and take-outs and deliveries are considered to be win-win options. It also helps restaurants to reduce food wastage by allowing left-over food to be taken home in disposable cutlery.
5. Used disposable utensils are usually loaded with food debris and grease. They range from small items (for example, forks, knives, and spoons) to large complex items (for example, sectioned platters, lids, and trays of diverse plastic types) being too inconvenient to clean or sort. Thus, they are disposed all together in garbage bags and likely to go into a landfill than being sorted.
6. The disposable plastics concept is well entrenched in the coffee and cola dispensing machines sector and any change in cup material will impact business costs.
Biodegradable and Recycled Plastics – are they Viable or Cost-effective?
Biodegradable plastics are suggested as compostable options and according to technical experts, are not yet fully developed in terms of meeting the functional requirements of disposable cutlery, raw material sourcing, or manufactured with acceptable cost and energy efficiency levels. Currently, disposable cutlery with biodegradable plastic content is not cost-effective for the majority of consumers or food service entities.
Supporters of eliminating or reducing disposable plastic usage cite as major concern the large carbon footprint or environmental impact that occurs much before the plastics are even used. During plastic manufacturing and transportation, high levels of energy and resources are required that do not justify their one-time use. Though recycled plastic seem to be a better option than virgin plastic, plastics in general contain known carcinogens and can leach toxic chemicals such as BPA into the food and environment when in landfills.
Other Plastic Items in Perspective
Disposable Plastic Water Bottles
Plastic utensils or cutlery are one of the four major disposable products that supporters of environmentally friendly initiatives usually list as offensive, apart from plastic grocery bags, plastic water bottles, and Ziploc bags. Plastic water bottles have received the best attention so far in terms of curbside municipal recycling programs, with 23-25% of used bottles being collected and recycled. In addition, plastic grocery bags and Ziploc bags are more notorious and likely to end up as garbage/waste and in landfills. For instance, in the United States only 6% of plastic waste is recycled.
Disposable Plastic Grocery Bags
The plastic cutlery related ban is likely to be more difficult to enforce than the plastic grocery bags ban that is in effect in several countries including France. Countries that have banned the use and distribution of disposable plastic grocery bags include France (recently in July 2016), India, Bangladesh, China, Brazil, Mexico, Italy, and the United States (20 states, 132 cities). Countries in Africa namely South Africa, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, Botswana, Kenya, and Ethopia also have banned plastic grocery bags. Countries that have imposed a tax on disposable plastic grocery bags are Germany, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, Australia, and Belgium.
The idea of using reusable bags of thicker plastic or composite material, fabrics, or cloth is considered to be acceptable by many consumers. Consumers are also encouraged by some major grocery chains to bring in their own bags or are discouraged to use plastic grocery bags through a small fee per bag (which was previously provided as complimentary).
Plastic packaging is somewhat different from disposable bags and cutlery, in that the packaging has a longer functional lifespan from the manufacturing facility through transportation, storage in the warehouse, on the retail shelf, and finally in the consumer’s home or table. These packages– containers, bottles, jars, boxes, trays, and dispensers– are expected to be thicker and more durable with high quality plastic, and tightly regulated with greater regulatory compliance. Apart from some re-use potential at homes, plastic packaging pass through more opportunities for recycling through city or provincial programs, and are thus less like to end up in garbage bins and landfills.
The food & beverage industry depends on plastic packaging for making their products safe, secure, lightweight, microwavable, temperature resistant, or sterilizable. Banning such plastic packaging will compromise the current status of the food & beverage industry, and is not likely to be a viable or required solution.
Banning disposable plastic cutlery seems to be inconvenient to a larger number of consumers and food service industry. Unlike the traditional options (durable, reusable cloth, or other bags) for disposable plastic grocery bags, the traditional options (metal or ceramic cutlery) for plastic utensils are not very practical. Municipal recycling programs are not as well organized as for plastic water bottles and other durable plastic packaging. Finding new consumer-friendly ways to collect, sort, and recycle disposable plastic cutlery is probably the future forward, than just banning them. However, only time will tell how the regulatory authorities and the plastic cutlery industry works together in different countries following France’s recent ban.