EU

Reduce, Reuse, Rethink: France as an example for European environmentalism

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Photo by Holger Ellgaard

Paul Hoffman

Two recent rulings in France have put the country and its citizens at the forefront of waste and excess food disposal in Europe. According to Angelique Chrisafis of The Guardian, “France battles an epidemic of wasted food that has highlighted the divide between giant food firms and people who are struggling to eat.” The result of this battle is a rare unanimous political consensus that made it illegal for supermarkets to throw away food that is approaching its expiration date. More specifically, this food will now go to charities that, according to center-right parliamentarian Yves Jégo, “are desperate for food” and will help curb the vast number of unemployed, homeless, and even students who regularly forage through the bins of supermarkets in search of food. The ruling has been well-received, especially by French food bank Banques Alimentaires.

Another recent ruling has seen the French ban the use of plastic cutlery, cups, and plates in a bid to reduce the country’s environmental footprint. Although this law will not come into effect until 2020, it will see a significant reduction of non-biodegradable plastic waste in France. In effect, France has undertaken two major steps in creating a better Europe, both environmentally and socially. Therefore, if these rulings are considered successful, similar policies should be implemented by other European Union members in their efforts to achieve a better, more sustainable Europe.

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An assortment of food recovered from a waste bin in France. Photo by Thomas Bresson

The European Parliament’s Zero Waste 2020 initiative, enacted on 24 May 2012, is one of the ways through which the EU is pursuing this very goal. This initiative calls for Europe to “bring residual waste close to zero.” However, this initiative is marred by the fact that in Europe, subsidies, incentives, and other economic stimuli go towards incineration and energy generation over recycling. Furthermore, this initiative is just that – an initiative, and thereby not legally binding. Effectively, if the French rulings were made into European policy, it would help Europe achieve its Zero Waste 2020 initiative without impeding on any of its market incentives. This would make the rulings much easier to implement without affecting other areas of the European economy and/or waste management. It would also signal to European citizens and to the rest of the world that “we as Europeans” take an active stand against the destruction of food and of our environment, and are not scared to lead on the important issues. This might, in turn, help to strengthen the bonds of the EU.

Crucially, if the French rulings were to be made European, Europeans themselves would benefit tremendously. First and foremost, it will help still the hunger of thousands of homeless and poor scattered across Europe, as homeless shelters and food banks will now be able to provide better quality food for more men, women, and children in need. A recent report in the Euractiv made evident the fact that French supermarkets currently throw away €16 billion worth of food every year. This “waste” could in fact be used to help those in need and deter them from foraging in bins. This is a point stressed by Arash Derambarsh, who says that he is “outraged by the sight of homeless people […] scrambling in supermarket bins.” Derambarsh is a young center-right politician who helped start the movement in France.

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Arash Derambarsh helping to distribute food to the needy. Photo by Joel Sagat

The ruling also creates new opportunities in biodegradable and sustainable product markets, while at the same time providing a new venue for European conglomerates and supermarket chains to create a better image. Prior to this ruling, supermarkets were known as great wasters of food, going so far as to contaminate unused food to deter scavengers. Former food minister of France Guillaume Garot stated, “It’s scandalous to see bleach being poured into supermarket dustbins along with edible foods.” With this ruling, supermarkets have the opportunity to change their image and use their new status as an advantage. At the same time, as plastic cutlery and utensils will be banned by 2020, businesses that focus on biodegradability and sustainability as alternatives to plastic find themselves in rapidly expanding markets. This is an important development, as it is fundamentally important that we stimulate the decrease in our carbon footprint while, at the same time, creating opportunities for fresh talent and business ideas that will help create the Europe of tomorrow.

In pursuit of Europe’s goal to reduce its carbon footprint, it should look to France for guidance. France’s initiatives on how to deal with waste, waste creation, and previously disposed-of food products serve as an excellent example to follow. If these new pieces of legislation are deemed successful in France, it opens up the opportunity to stimulate similar rulings in the rest of Europe. This will not only help us achieve the Zero Waste 2020 initiative and a greener, more carbon-friendly Europe, but will also create new opportunities whilst helping those who need it most.

Paul Hoffman has a bachelor in American Studies, is currently in his first year of the Euroculture Master, and aspires to work on the Digital Agenda for Europe. He has lived in Spain, Ireland, and The Netherlands, and is planning a move to France.

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