France to Ban Plastic Packaging by 2040 With Other Crackdowns in Store

France is strengthening its push toward a system-wide transition to a circular economy, having set a few world firsts on the policy front. Among them is a national ban on the destruction of unsold goods and a “repairability index,” which rates how fixable electronics are; anyone who markets these wares in France must display these scores on their products. But these two mandates are the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

December 27, 2023

6 Min Read
TMPhoto / Alamy Stock Photo

France is strengthening its push toward a system-wide transition to a circular economy, having set a few world firsts on the policy front. Among them is a national ban on the destruction of unsold goods and a “repairability index,” which rates how fixable electronics are; anyone who markets these wares in France must display these scores on their products.  But these two mandates are the proverbial tip of the iceberg. They’re neatly tucked into a broad-sweeping “Anti-waste Law,” packed with about 130 articles.

Collectively, the provisions aspire to decrease waste from product design to recovery; hold producers accountable for their carbon footprint; and provide more transparency to consumers.

France’s policy targets industries from food manufacturers and retailers to makers of packaging, electronics, appliances, and the construction sector. These and other producers must adhere to extended producer responsibility (EPR) rules – France now has 25 EPR schemes that require obligated parties to fund collection, sorting, and recycling of their end-of-life products and materials.  The programs apply to toys, cigarette butts, sporting equipment, textiles, batteries, boats, and more.

Dead center on France’s radar screen is plastic trash; the Anti-waste Law calls for 100% recycling of plastic by 2025 and then aims to phase out all single-use plastic packaging by 2040. Alongside these targets, restaurants have to provide reusable food serviceware; retailers must supply reusable containers; and public institutions must install water fountains.

Some U.S. waste pros shared with Waste360 what stands out to them in France’s policy. And from Europe, anti-plastics crusaders give a snapshot of how this high-aiming initiative is playing out so far.

Sydney Harris, policy director, Upstream, has long lobbied for laws to support reuse. She’s happy to see that France set up a reuse fund and requires parties obligated to participate in EPR programs to pay into it.

Reuse is much better for the environment than recycling, as noted by its place on the Environmental Protection Agency’s waste hierarchy, she says.

“If we were going to align EPR funding with the priorities in the hierarchy, the majority of program funds would be directed toward source reduction and reuse, and the leftovers would go to recycling packages that couldn't be source-reduced or reused,” Harris contends.

This financing concept is slowly making its way into US policy, so far codified in Oregon's new packaging EPR scheme and under discussion in several states with pending legislation.

Reuse advocates are thinking ahead about how to make such models work. 

“The best way to spend pooled industry funds is first to build a shared reuse infrastructure across the entire jurisdiction (the whole country in the case of Europe, or state in the case of the US). Without an efficient, shared infrastructure –this means collection points, transportation mechanisms, sorting and processing facilities— reuse will not scale,” Harris says.

However, producers lack incentives to share infrastructure with their competitors. She believes that pooled funds under an EPR scheme could break through that barrier.

Experience shows that producers must reach an average annual return rate of at least 90% for a reuse system to pay off.

Harris suggests codifying a 90% return rate where feasible, with allowances for producers to work up to this mark over time.

Nick Lapis, director of Advocacy, Californians Against Waste (CAW), weighs in on France’s repairability index. CAW co-sponsored California’s new right-to-repair legislation, requiring electronics manufacturers to provide repair shops and the public resources to fix their devices.

“It’s exciting to see France pushing the envelope in this space. Repairing an existing item will almost always be better for the environment (and your pocketbook) than recycling or disposing of it,” Lapis says. He could see similar policy coming to California to complement the state’s work.

The single-use plastics problem has been hard to crack.  While provisions around these materials set clear goals with dated targets, the government struggles to implement them.

Diane Beaumenay-Joannet, Marine Litter advocacy officer, Surfrider Foundation Europe, believes the failure to adopt a mandatory deposit return system (DRS) is hindering progress as it provides the public a clear financial incentive to recover bottles.

She also calls out a lack of practical means to reach the target of 100% recycled plastic by 2025. However, she believes recycling should be a lesser focus to get to the ultimate goal of phasing out plastics altogether by 2040.

“Recycling must be optimized, but it cannot be the only answer. We produce too much plastic and too much non-recyclable plastic. We need to produce less, but better, and reuse,” Beaumenay-Joannet attests.

France has introduced a five-year reduction plan with progressive targets, which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) sees as the way to go.

In a report, EMF states, “The law sets a direction of travel towards a circular economy through its long-term objectives. However, setting mid-term [objectives] has helped to get the momentum rolling. As innovations and technologies emerge and industry adapts, France can raise its level of ambition and set new targets.”

Some companies have stepped forward to get in line with new and pending expectations, including a few big players.

McDonald’s France pulled plastic toys from its Happy Meals, swapping them for kiddie trinkets made from renewable materials. This about-face comes shortly after the French fast-food subsidiary’s move to eliminate plastic packaging around toys.

In early 2023 French food retail giant Carrefour Group (reportedly the world’s eighth-largest retailer by revenue) became the country’s first food chain to obtain the government’s “anti-waste label,” demonstrating compliance with food waste-related reduction regulations.

Carrefour Group CEO Alexandre Bompard was quoted in as proclaiming, “With this label, we raise the level of our commitment to align with best practices, and we have the ambition to take our entire industry with us in this process.”

Over 200,000 tons of single-use packaging waste have been eliminated since January 2023 when food service providers were first required to use reusable containers, according to Charlotte Soulary, advocacy manager, Zero Waste France. But there’s plenty more work to do.

French residents produced on average 535 kg of waste (1,179.47 lb) each in 2020, slightly higher than across the European Union, and single-use packaging was a bulk of it.

In practice, it has been an everyday struggle to ensure the law is enforced to bring meaningful reform, Soulary says.

Lapis is among the optimists, and along with other environmental advocates is watching to learn what the future holds, especially in terms of how France’s work might impact other regions.

“I think all of us love to see new approaches to waste reduction being tried anywhere in the world, and I could see [California and the US] replicating some of them in the future. It becomes really hard for  companies [and governments] to claim they can’t do something when they are doing it in Europe.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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