The Story Behind France’s New Ban on Plastic Dishware

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France has recently become the first country in the world to ban plastic plates and cups. The latest in a series of controversial environmental reforms in France is set to go into effect in 2020 and is being celebrated by environmental groups and decried by manufacturing and trade unions.

This announcement comes roughly a month after France banned plastic bags across and three months after France made headlines for passing a law making it illegal for supermarkets to waste food.

By the standards of environmental activism, this progress is remarkably rapid.

How did this happen? Is this the result of some new breakthrough in scientific understanding? Have environmental activists found the secret to galvanizing the French public?

As it turns out, scientific breakthroughs and environmental activism take the backseat in this particular story. But who, then, is the driver behind this remarkable environmental progress?

The unlikely hero of this story is none other than the embattled French President Francois Hollande, who is widely known as the unlucky head of state during last year’s violent terrorist attacks in Paris and the President with the lowest approval rating in French history. He is less widely known as an environmental crusader.

Environmental issues have not been a priority for Hollande or members of his cabinet until very recently. He has long had a reputation for being politically indecisive and having a penchant for building consensus rather than delivering on campaign promises.

How, then, did he catalyze this remarkable uptick in French environmental progress?

The action that paved the way for a year of environmental reform in France was not a daring environmental policy stroke but rather a shrewd piece of public-relations damage control. This may be one of the stranger paths to environmental reform, but it highlights the same struggle that environmental organizations in the United States and across the world face.

Hollande, a French Socialist, ousted former President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012 with a campaign that made bold promises to tax big businesses, create subsidized jobs for unemployed young people and grant greater rights to same sex couples. While markedly different in style than his flamboyant predecessor, Hollande proved to be even less popular — polling at a 26% approval rating compared to Sarkozy’s 30%.

By the dawn of 2015, Hollande was being heavily criticized for failing to make good on many of his campaign promises and was forced to roll back his agenda to focus on reducing unemployment. Recognizing that his prospects for reelection in 2017 were slim, Hollande launched a campaign meant to appeal to French national pride. In order to win over public sympathy, Hollande announced his intention to apply to host the 2024 Olympics.

In the short term, however, Hollande needed some other way to demonstrate his passion for France. Enter the United Nations Climate Conference, an event scheduled to take place in Le Bourget, France from November 30 to December 11, 2015.

The event promised to shift the global spotlight onto France and give Hollande an opportunity to highlight France’s environmental successes — and begin to build his positive legacy.

With a view to position his nation as a leader at the conference, Hollande and Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development, and Energy Ségolène Royal — Hollande’s ex-partner of nearly thirty years with whom he has four children — published the Energy Transition for Green Growth Act.

The document intended to, in Hollande’s words, “make France – with a view to the Paris Climate Summit – an exemplary nation.” Released just a month before the conference, the bold but imprecise plan received little fanfare.

While it didn’t generate global headlines, it did lay a political foundation — and at the time Hollande couldn’t possibly have known how imminent events would shape and accelerate his brand new environmental agenda. Less than three weeks before the United Nations Climate Conference opened, the cities of Paris and St. Denis in France fell victim to the worst terrorist attacks in the nation’s history.

The grisly attacks, which killed 130 people and left 368 more people wounded, forced President Hollande into the global spotlight and diverted his attention from the upcoming conference.

The terrorist attacks had the unanticipated impact of focusing even more attention on France when the Conference opened. The domestically unpopular President Hollande, having recently been unexpectedly thrust into the global spotlight, became a vocal opponent of the terror attacks and vocal proponent of climate reform, and the Conference took on an unexpected tone of urgency.

After protracted and contentious proceedings, the conference successfully brokered the Paris Agreement, a historic accord between 195 participating nations to reduce emissions in an ultimate attempt to reduce human impact on global warming. While criticized by many for failing to institute binding commitments or enforcement mechanisms, the Conference — the largest gathering of world leaders to address climate change in history — was at least a moderate success.

Due in part to both the resilience it had shown in the face of the terrorist attacks and the unexpected success of the Paris Agreement, France became a re-energized global symbol of progressivism and grit. After the conclusion of the Conference, Hollande continued to advocate global environmental reform — and to link it with other global issues such as the war in Syria.

In the year following the conference, the French environmental movement has scored a number of significant victories — the most recent of which is the ban on plastic dishware.

Like the ban on plastic bags that succeeded in July, the ban on plastic dishware traces its origin back to the same quiet document — the Energy Transition for Green Growth, where it went largely unrecognized until after the drama of the Paris attacks and the Conference.

France already had a well-developed environmental movement that had made significant environmental gains before the Climate Conference. As with so many other parts of the world, however, French environmental reformers Had been up against powerful lobbying groups that sought to prevent sweeping environmental reform laws that would affect business and trade.

The fickle current of global politics put French environmentalists in an unusually politically advantageous situation — and they wasted no time in proposing reforms. In addition to the plastic reforms, local Councilman Arash Dembarash proposed a bill for food waste reform that was unanimously approved by the Senate in February — a progressive reform that would likely have faced staunch opposition less than year ago.

Usually, the financial heft of massive, multi-national trade organizations like Pack2Go makes it politically impractical for activists and politicians alike to fight for reform — even with the benefit of clear science behind climate change to back up their claims.

Despite the unprecedented political support that has bolstered environmental reform efforts in France, however, opposition hasn’t completely disappeared. Pack2Go, a global convenience food packaging association, has already launched a campaign to contest recent French efforts to ban plastic packaging.

"We are urging the European Commission to do the right thing and to take legal action against France for infringing European law,”Eamonn Bates, secretary general of Pack2Go, recently told the Associated Press. “If they don't, we will."

Unfortunately for environmental reform groups in the United States and elsewhere, global circumstances rarely push local politics in favor of environmental reform — and when they do, they seem to do so at a high price. In this case, though, an unusual political context opened a chink in the armor of moneyed trade groups.

Hollande’s approval ratings in France remain low, his chances at reelection are slim, and he is certainly no darling of the environmental reform movement. While it may not been on his initial agenda, France may be on its way to being an exemplary nation — with a view well beyond the Paris Climate Summit.