France Bans Plastic: If Only Israel Could Find the Courage to Do the Same

France blazed a trail where nobody else is following, at least partly due to the cowardice of coalition-cowed politicians.

Israelis wrapping their shopping in plastic bags at a Shufersal supermarket. Picture shows a man in a white shirt with three bags, one clearly containing fresh produce and one a box of breakfast cereal. The third bag appears to have been doubled, presumably for strength. A woman standing next to him in line, wearing a brownish-greenish shirt and jeans, is holding a plastic bag with unclear content.
Dan Keinan

Viva la France! This weekend the country that brought power to the people, albeit through bloody revolution, has brought power to the planet. France has become the first nation in the world to ban plastic disposable plates, cups and cutlery.

Some other countries, including India, China, Italy, Eritrea, Morocco and Greenland have banned plastic bags but that's about it.

It isn't that a Frenchman caught resting his baguette on a plastic planchette will be tossed to the lions, if any survive by 2020, the year by which French manufacturers were given to convert to making disposable tableware out of materials that can decompose.

Ecologists are ecstatic. The opposition has vowed to gut the law, on the grounds that it's "anti-consumer". Claiming fear that the French prohibition might spread to other countries, secretary general Eamonn Bates of the Belgium-based organization representing European packaging manufacturers, Pack2Go Europe, told AP: "We are urging the European Commission to do the right thing and to take legal action against France for infringing European law. If they don't, we will."

In the longer run, the "right thing" for consumers isn't the convenience of getting a plastic bag at the shop rather than remembering to lug a basket. It's to keep the nation, and the planet, survivable. That makes it all the more shameful that Israel, the would-be light unto the nations, has done absolutely nothing substantive to constrain the people's use of plastics.

Plastic constituted 18% of Israeli garbage in 2012-2013, the Ministry for Environmental Affairs reported. That was the second-biggest component after food remnants, at 34%. Paper came in third place, at 16% and disposable diapers – another ecological nightmare – constituted 6% of all Israeli trash. Yet all Israel has done is decide to make shops charge a wee fee for plastic bags from 2017.

Kashrut is no excuse

Plastic is made of petroleum. Everything about its manufacture and use flies in the face of man's most urgent mission today: to decarbonize – cease all use of oil products. Also, though made of hydrocarbon, plastic was designed to be durable, not biodegradable. This March, Japanese scientists reported discovering a species of bacteria, Ideonella sakainesis, that can eat certain types of plastic (polyethylene terephthalate), though it's early days to say whether the germs can be engineered to chew through the plastic continent expanding in the Pacific Ocean, or the burgeoning landfills on land.

Ecologists are scientists and do not have the luxury of pretending that plastic forks aren't sticking in mankind's eye. Politicians do have the luxury of wailing inanities because it suits their agenda. Implementation of the French law, AP reports, was postponed from 2017 to 2020 because Environment Minister Segolene Royal argued it was "anti-social", since the poor are accustomed to using disposable tableware, which is to trivialize an argument that sticks in many an economist's craw. The poor also suffer mightily from the plastics industry.

Despite some chatter about the issue, Israel has not banned plastic bags, or cutlery or plates or anything else. There is a law that had been kicked around for years, to force shops to charge money for plastic bags (the equivalent of 3 whole cents) in order to discourage shoppers from using them. Finally it will come into force in 2017, unless it gets shot down by then.

Savor the plastic glasses, knives, forks and food boxes at a takeaway restaurant in Paris, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016: France has banned use of disposable plastic eating-ware from 2020.
Bertrand Combaldieu, AP

In Israel, plastic bags are such a habit that people routinely take shopping baskets with them that they fill with items, each individually wrapped in a plastic bag. There is no excuse for it.

When it comes to for cutlery and plates, Jews may feel they have an excuse that other observant folk do not: kashrut.

Observant Jews maintain separate ware for meat and dairy. Many, especially in the large families typical of the observant community, make life simpler by using disposable kitchenware, which the rabbis have assured, is parve (neither meat nor milk).

But the convenience of hassled parents, or that of picknickers or hikers or beachgoers in binikis or burkinis or space suits if they please, is not adequate excuse for fouling the nation with growing piles of plastic that, like stray cats, is there to stay. (It can take your average plastic bottle around 450 years to finally reverse into component atoms.) Over years, plastic finally will crumble into tiny little pieces of non-biodegradable plastic or into chemicals that do find their way into the environment.

Royale may have waffled about the date, but at least France's political echelon had the collective courage to seriously annoy a lot of people who either don't take ecological disaster seriously or have a perverse affection for landfills.

Israeli politicians have a habit of enacting laws, populist or necessary or otherwise, knowing they'll be reversed, through a mechanism known as the "Economic Arrangements law", which sometimes seems to exist in order to reverse inconvenient legislation. Some blame the habit on coalition politics weakening the players. But if Israel's politicians continue to play at saving their seats rather than saving the country, it isn't that big Israeli families will continue to vote for them in order to save themselves from big piles of dishes. They'll be trapped in their homes by the pile of plastic.