The circular economy: eliminating plastic?

Summary

By 2020, plastic cutlery, cups and plates will be banned in France, together with single-use plastic bags. Voted by Parliament, these decisions form part of an approach involving green growth, the circular economy and the bio-economy.
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29Nov.
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Since 1st July 2016 in France, single-use plastic bags have been banned at all supermarket checkouts. And on 30 August 2016, an order detailed the procedures for prohibiting “disposable cups, cutlery and plates in plastic materials”. The ban will come into force on 1st January 2020, at the same time as the Energy Transition Act for green growth: a series of laws passed by the French Parliament designed to reduce the country’s carbon emissions, prepare the French economy’s move into the « post-oil age », and foster the creation of jobs in energy efficiency, resource recycling and renewable energy development.
The fact that it is part of a broader ambition explains the interest taken in this measure. Its announcement has been largely taken up both within and outside France, particularly in the US, where some are calling for the country to follow France’s example: to promote green growth by supporting a circular economy, which prevents waste production as far as possible, and factors in a product’s entire life at the very design stage.

The law will not ban all disposable cups and plates, only those that cannot be “composted in domestic composts, and do not consist wholly or partially of bio sourced materials”. This detail sheds valuable light on the issue of plastics: massively adopted as soon as they were invented in the Sixties because of their lightness, resistance, versatility and capacity to contain foods safely, in the context of an ecological crisis they have become the black sheep we all stigmatize. Based on precious, non-renewable fossil resources, they are now used in situations that are often hardly compatible with sustainable development aims: consumed en masse, too-infrequently recycled and thrown as litter into the environment (particularly the sea), when they are not biodegradable. Nonetheless, plastic is still as practical as ever, and sometimes necessary in crucial links in the chain of food supply and consumption. In terms of packaging and transporting products, preserving the quality of food and protecting foodstuffs from contamination, it is now difficult or even impossible to replace it with more traditional materials like glass.
It is thus crucial to work on developing materials that meet the same requirements but cause less harm to the environment. The good news is that solutions are emerging, and some are extremely promising.

Mushrooms and plants to replace plastic

In this sphere, research is on the move. Some, like the entrepreneur Eben Bayer, founder of Ecovative LCC, are developing mushroom-based plastics. In the food sector, the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (of which Danone is one of the founding companies, and which works in partnership with environmental protection researchers and NGOs) is supporting the development of bio-sourced plastics. These are entirely biodegradable and use plant materials, such as cellulose residues, some types of agricultural waste and marine algae. (For further details, see the BFA’s White Paper, Responsible Bioplastics).

A bio-economy is one where the materials come from natural, renewable resources

The BFA details two key concepts in its approach: the circular economy and the bio-economy. “The circular economy is a repairing economy through design, where material flows are captured and reused, and biological flows are designed to reintegrate and regenerate nature in a totally safe way. Bio-economy is an essential part of the circular economy (…). A bio-economy is one where the materials come from natural, renewable resources.” And the two go hand in hand: for the circular economy to function, it constantly requires new natural resources. “This is particularly true when the population is continuing to grow, » says the BFA. And that’s the main concern of the green growth incorporated into the 2020 Energy Transition Act: moving from a linear economy to a circular economy while increasing production to meet the needs of an expanding population. While the project is huge, decisions of this type are already leading the way.

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