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Plastic wrapping for commonly sold fruit and vegetables is to be banned in France from 1 January, prompting calls by some environmentalists for the UK to follow suit.
The move is being introduced to curb "outrageous" levels of waste wrapping, which is having an impact on both the environment and the climate.
The French government said it expects to prevent the use of more than one billion plastic packages a year when the new law comes into effect on 1 January.
A list of around 30 fruits and vegetables has been published, which, though subject to change, currently includes leeks, courgettes, aubergines, apples and peaches.
Further items will be added to the list over the coming years, with more delicate fruits such as berries being banned from sale in plastic wrapping by 2026.
“We use an outrageous amount of single-use plastic in our daily lives," the environment ministry said in a statement to Reuters.
"The circular economy law aims at cutting back the use of throwaway plastic and boost its substitution by other materials or reusable and recyclable packaging."
It estimated that in total, 37% of all fruit and vegetables sold in France are currently sold with plastic wrapping.
While environmentalists have been applauding the plastic ban on fresh produce, the French Fruit Sellers' Federation warned that the switch to alternatives such as cardboard could be difficult to achieve in the coming months.
“Selling loose produce is complicated as many customers touch the fruit and people do not want their fruit to be touched by other customers,” president Francois Roch said.
The packaging ban is part of a wider government programme to phase out plastic. From 2021, France banned plastic straws, cups and cutlery, as well as styrofoam takeaway boxes.
And from 2022, public spaces in France must provide water fountains to reduce the use of plastic bottles, publications must also be shipped without plastic wrapping, and from January 2023, France will also ban throwaway crockery in fast-food restaurants.
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The UK's plastic-less plan
As France fast-forwards its commitment to reducing plastic waste on fruit and vegetables, conservationists in the UK are keen to see similar measures introduced to reduce the use of unnecessary plastic packaging.
“The proposed ban on unnecessary plastic packaging for fruit and veg in France is a great initiative that the UK government should follow," Friends of the Earth plastics campaigner Camilla Zerr told The Independent.
“Unfortunately, loose fruit and vegetables are still not widely available, which makes buying produce without needless wrapping almost impossible. We shouldn’t have to buy plastic we don’t want, especially when we know it’ll inevitably add to the plastic pollution crisis blighting our planet.
“Despite some promising progress, plastic remains a huge threat to our environment and wildlife. Ministers must get tougher so that our supermarket shelves no longer dictate the amount of plastic in our lives.”
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Other experts believe the coronavirus pandemic may have hindered the UK's campaign against single-use plastic.
According to plastic waste collection company Divert.co.uk as a result of shoppers’ fears about COVID-19 transmission, countless supermarkets are seeing the rise of single-use plastic bag, particularly in the fresh produce sections.
In recent years many retailers have made steps to improve their practices, with supermarkets such as Sainsbury's selling reusable mesh bags for produce and others reducing the use of packaging in the first place, ensuring customers opt for eco-friendly options for their loose produce.
Tesco committed to removing one billion pieces of plastic from its stores by the end of 2020, while Asda have rolled out initiatives in-store to ensure that it does not cost shoppers more to ditch single-use plastics.
Meanwhile almost all of the UK’s major food retailers are signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, launched in 2018, which aims to eliminate single-use plastics and increase the use of recyclable or compostable packaging.
The pandemic, however, has halted many of these waste reduction schemes, as customers are increasingly turning back to the ubiquitous plastic bag for their produce.
“I haven’t bought loose fruit and veg since last March,” said one shopper surveyed by Divert.co.uk. “I’d rather have things in plastic bags, it feels more hygienic.”
But with UK supermarkets producing 1.2 billion plastic fruit and veg bags a year, the rise in people turning back to single-use plastics on their fresh produce is concerning.
The solution, according to Divert.co.uk could be a more considered approach: compostable paper gloves to allow customers to select loose produce, regularly-cleaned tongs, a public awareness campaign around washing fruit and veg.
“A big public campaign to remind the public about single-use plastics and the enormously detrimental effect they have on the environment is a good start.” Mark Hall, spokesperson for Divert.co.uk says.
“It’s time we stopped treating the environment and its protection as an optional concern.
“Both the public and businesses have a responsibility to continue making waste reduction a priority and finding innovative, environmentally friendly solutions when needed - like they have done this year.”