There is a fear among France's fresh produce professionals that the country's new circular economy law, aimed at combatting waste, will not only result in a rise in waste and spoilage, but also increased costs for companies and higher prices for consumers, ultimately leading to a reduction in fruit and vegetable consumption.
The law, known as AGEC, bans plastic packaging on unprocessed fresh fruit and vegetables packaged in batches of less than 1.5kg. Products that present a risk of deterioration when sold in bulk are granted a temporary exemption, while firms have until the end of June to dispose of old stocks.
Under the new rules, leeks, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, apples and pears, plus around 30 other items, can no longer be sold in plastic. Instead, they must be wrapped in recyclable materials. For especially fragile fruits such as berries and peaches, plastic is to be gradually phased out over the coming years.
Many in the industry have complained at the lack of consultation and questioned the targeting of a sector that accounts for less than 1.5 per cent of food plastics used in France, with 65 per cent of sales in bulk.
French interprofessional organisation Interfel has expressed its support for the transition to alternatives to plastic packaging and labels, but it too fears that such a blanket approach to all products is unrealistic within the time limit set.
“We were never consulted,” Laurent Grandin, head of Interfel, told the AFP news agency, adding that the costs were “insurmountable” for small companies that would have to continue using plastic on exports to countries like the UK, a major market for French apples.
According to Al Jazeera, Elipso, an association representing manufacturers, feared some firms would be forced to halt their fruit and vegetable packing activity, 'even though they have been working on alternatives using less plastic or recycled plastic for several years”.
Impact on waste
The government estimates that the new regulation would eliminate 1bn items of plastic waste a year, but its real consequences appear less certain.
'The impact of the law is considerable for French companies,' said Catherine Legal, marketing director of tomato and strawberry producer Savéol. 'It demands that companies make multiple industrial investments at a time of unprecedented rises in raw material costs.'
French journalist and writer Anne-Elisabeth Moutet told Al Jazeera of a mixed public reaction to the new rules. 'There is broad support for not using so much plastic,' she said. 'At the same time, once you buy vegetables yourself, you realise that nothing has been done to find new ways of wrapping that stops the produce from decomposing too fast.”
France’s packaging industry meanwhile expressed dismay at the new rules, particularly the prohibition on recycled plastics.
“Plastic prevents water loss,” Daniel Sauvaître, Interfel's general secretary, told La France Agricole. 'It is necessary to find materials with the same quality of conservation.'
Technical centre CTIFL has been working on the issue for two years. “We see interesting solutions coming out, based on starch or cellulose,' Cyril Pogu, vice-president of Légumes de France, told La France Agricole, 'but they don’t go well with humidity, which breaks them down very quickly.”
Pogu is also a producer of stemmed radish, a moist root vegetable that is affected by the ban, since it is not regarded as fragile.
“Gas exchanges cause the radish to dehydrate much faster than with plastic,' he said. 'Products should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, including the availability of alternative solutions that correspond to the requirements of protection, conservation and economic reality.'
One alternative, cardboard, has seen its price skyrocket. Meanwhile, cardboard trays take up more space than plastic ones, raising storage concerns. And without suitable substitute materials, producers fear increased losses. 'Retailers, when they account for the losses on the shelves, will go back to the producers and ask them to take responsibility,' said Pogu.
Article 80 of the AGEC law equally targets the adhesive labels used on fruit and vegetables, for which suppliers are struggling to find satisfactory alternatives. “Our fear is that this type of initiative will actually serve to reduce consumption,' said Sauvaître.
Interfel called on public authorities to postpone the application of the regulatory text 'until generalisable solutions can be found. A harmonised regulatory solution at European level must be defined to remedy distortions of competition both for French professionals and for consumers while taking environmental objectives into account.'
Marc Peyres, commercial director at apple and kiwifruit exporter Blue Whale, questioned the wisdom of France's solo approach, while also confirming the company's preparedness.
'It might be wiser for a country like France to move forward with others in Europe,' he said, 'to avoid French producers having to bear the costs and risks of new disruptive technologies alone.'
However, he stated that the company was ready with alternative packaging and making progress on the issue of stickers.'We will quickly get to that point,' he confirmed. 'But this change has involved a significant cost in terms of investments in new machines and the abandonment of current ones. And the new machines are less efficient than the previous ones, therefore reducing productivity,' he added.
Philippe Binard, general delegate of Freshfel Europe, commented: 'The ban on non-home compostable stickers without having an alternative on the market is problematic as it will significantly endanger the labelling of essential information conveyed to consumers on the stickers such as origin, brands, geographical indications, or organic.'
Equally, he pointed out, the same pressure was not being placed on other food products, 'hence representing a discriminatory status for fresh fruit and vegetables”.
Freshfel Europe called for the support of the European Commission in securing more time and flexibility to lessen the impact on the fruit and vegetables sector.
Peyres said he feared that some additional costs would have to be passed on to consumers. 'Perhaps this is the price we have to pay for the planet,' he said. 'But there is a sense that the industry is serving as a guinea pig for future innovations, since these current solutions are unlikely to prevail in the longer term.'