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Breaking Down France’s Anti-Waste Law So You Don’t Have To

by Chloe Gordon on 05/23/2023 | 4 Minute Read

America has issues—loads of them. And while I write solely about packaging design, there is, believe it or not, plenty of crossover between politics and packaging. One of them is this big, golden, ever-popular, often-discussed idea of sustainability and its seemingly infinite definitions.

Seeking a more sustainable way of life can feel as futile as the chasing arrows of the recycling symbol, especially when some consumers can't find the time to recycle the three plastic containers of expired sour cream they found post-refrigerator purge. At least in America, we are in dire need of reframing our mindsets regarding packaging design and single-use plastics and how it relates to the future of our planet. 

But where would we even begin? And who do these seemingly enormous responsibilities fall on? Is it big corporations? Consumers? Designers? Lawmakers? Gen Z? Sure, in actuality, it takes everyone to be an active participant to make a difference, but we can also look to other countries like France, with an anti-waste model already in place. We don't need to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch; we just need to, you know, actually do something.

In 2020, France adopted its anti-waste law to protect the environment by decreasing the amount of waste people create. In its most boiled down form, this law encourages people and companies to prioritize sustainable materials and recycling. The goal? Country-wide sustainability measures from the ground up. 

France based the law on the principles of a circular economy, emphasizing the use of resources sustainably and responsibly, meaning materials and products must be made as sustainably as possible and be used for as long as possible, helping reduce waste and minimize the ever-spinning hamster wheel of overconsumption that we, as purchasing people, so often get trapped in. 

But, figuring out how an entire country, including corporations, designers, and consumers, can rally behind the idea of going the extra mile to be more sustainable is about as complicated as it sounds, which is to say it’s very complicated. Accordingly, the government put together three phases to tackle their goals: stimulate design for the circular economy, manage resources to preserve value, and collaborate for system change.

According to the Library of Congress, with these measures in place, by 2030 in France, there will be a 15% decrease in household waste per person and a 5% decrease in waste generated from economic activity because of the new anti-waste law. In addition, a lofty—but admirable—expectation of recycling 100% of plastics is to be achieved by 2025, a goal virtually unthinkable here in the US because of our lack of recycling infrastructure or EPR laws

The law prohibits the use of commonplace items like disposable straws and plastic cutlery found in fast-food restaurants, which began in 2021. Disposable plates and cups for on-premise consumption of food and beverages in fast-food restaurants will also be prohibited from 2023 on (also, look at McDonald's new for-here packaging). Furthermore, selling fruits and vegetables in plastic packaging for portions under 1.5 kilograms will be illegal, and water fountains will be required in public buildings. 

Additionally, the new law aims to enhance the collection of recyclable plastics by introducing refund systems and other measures. Some materials have already been phased out, including polystyrene boxes, plastic confetti, and the importation of plastic bags as of January 2021. Plastic tea bags, produce wraps, and plastic kids' meal toys got the ax in January 2022. 

The law additionally requires companies to shoulder more responsibility for the environmental impact of their products and packaging by ensuring that products are designed to last longer, be more easily repairable, and contain more recycled materials. Additionally, it requires that companies provide information to consumers about how to dispose of products in an environmentally friendly way.

Corporations will also need to be more mindful when it comes to the destruction of the waste they create. By facing fines for disposal, companies must be more mindful and vigilant of their excessive waste and find better ways to recycle or reuse materials instead of passively throwing them into a landfill. 

Another facet of the law is the elaboration of France’s 2016 food waste law. The expanded version within the realms of the Anti-Waste Law put into place in 2020 states that food waste must first be prevented through discounts and awareness, then offered as donations to charity. If there’s still food left over, then it may be recycled as animal feed or composted. It can only be disposed of when companies run through that checklist. Food retailers, however, are forbidden to destroy unsold food products fit for consumption. Food organizations can also partner with charity organizations to donate unsold food products (for supermarkets of a certain size).

Unfortunately, it would be a challenge for America to pull a copy-paste of France’s anti-waste model. For starters, we lack the infrastructure available to recycle materials as efficiently in Europe and they have much stricter policies. What's more, the recycling rates in the US aren't so hot, and it would be an uphill battle getting US brands and manufacturers to foot the bill when it comes to disposal and collection (plus, QSRs like McDonald's are already lobbying against many parts of France's new waste laws).

Still, France offers a compelling model for the US and the rest of the world. But, to do so takes more than just political will. We're going to have to be serious about the incredible amounts of waste we generate, the packaging materials we use, and educating people. And it will take more than just brands or plastic manufacturers from wagging their fingers at consumers.