Lessons for India: Ecological revolution in France to ban plastic bags and levy penalties on food wastage


By Rajendra Shende

In month of May in 1789, the simmering debate between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy on the proposed royal reforms sparked the French revolution. It quickly spilled all over the country. The ‘commons’ or the so called ‘Third Estate’ started holding their own assembly. Within a span of six months, by December, prison of Bastille and palace of Versailles were stormed and the debate on new structures that included, inter alia, principles of legal equality, began to set in.

This week, on May 26, the French lower house of parliament approved a ‘Royal’ bill, pushed patiently but vigorously by France’s Ecology Minister, Segolene Royal. The bill, called ‘the energy transition for green growth Act’, passed by 308 votes for and 217 against, heralds the beginning of the French ecological revolution. It nurtures the tunes for the global leaders preparing for the UN meetings this year, first in September in New York on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and later in December in Paris, for climate meeting that is expected to shape up the global agenda to decarbonize the post-2015 development and wean away the humans from addiction to fossil fuels.

The French revolution had a worldwide impact on the politics, economics and social dimensions. The 21st century French bill, if approved by the upper house – the Senate – has the potential to have a spill over impact at the Paris meeting. The bill aims to reduce French dependency on nuclear power to 50 percent by 2025. Today, France relies more on nuclear power – 75 percent of its energy – than any other nation in the world – with no record of a major nuclear accident in the 53 years since its first nuclear plant went on stream. France now plans to shut down nearly 40% of its 59 nuclear reactors in the next decade.

Considering that Japan, even after the Fukushima disaster, is contemplating restarting its nuclear reactors to restore its share of electricity production from nuclear power to more than 30%, French plans are stunningly ‘green’.

The bill forbids big supermarkets from destroying unsold food. Food no longer fit for sale would have to be donated to charities or to farms for use as animal feed or compost. The global food waste has reached shocking proportions. In a world where over 840 million go hungry every day, at least one-third, or 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced each year, is lost or wasted, as per a FAO report. Even a quarter of this could feed all the world’s hungry people, as per the report.

Food loss and waste amounts to roughly $680 billion in industrialized countries (mainly through consumer and market waste) and $310 billion in developing countries (mainly during harvesting and in bringing to the market). The French bill includes the penalty of 75,000 Euros and two years’ imprisonment for the breach of this measure by large and medium supermarkets.

The new law would also ban plastic bags in all supermarkets and stores from January 1, 2016. Only biodegradable bags made from potato or maize would be allowed. Many countries in the world have banned plastic bags in some form or the other. However, such bans are mainly applicable to thicker heavy bags and implementation remains a problem. France is going to ban plastic bags of all sizes.

Under the bill, every enterprise employing more than 100 people would be needed to provide how they would save fuel used for transportation. State, local and city councils would be required to buy at least 50% of low emission vehicles when they renew their fleets of buses, starting in 2020.

Sharing vehicles will be promoted among the public. A reduced toll rate on expressways for light vehicles with very low emission and creation of special bike routes are included in the bill. This measure would force all private owners of houses and apartments to renovate their properties by 2025, if they consume a high amount of energy, one that exceeds 330 units per sq metre per year.

More than 93 percent of the French, as per latest survey, believe that current natural disasters are due to global warming. The French are looking forward to the Paris climate summit and welcome the passing of the Segolene Royal’s ecological bill and its energy transition for green growth and the reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG)emission.

Former couple, President Hollande and Segolene Royal, has worked together on an energy transition and sustainable development initiative. While President Hollande is busy travelling around the world persuading and urging the global leaders for the success of the Paris Climate meeting, his former wife is taking the lead on the domestic front to demonstrate that ‘charity begins at home’. Quite contrary to what Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette did in 18th century.

(Shende is an IIT-alumni and chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre. He is also a former director of the UNEP. He can be contacted at [email protected] With inputs from IANS)