Plastic bags: their impact on the health of animals and new French legislation regulating their use

It is estimated that 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced annually worldwide, of which 10% (nearly 30 million tonnes) ends up in the ocean. Ocean pollution as a result of plastic waste is not a recent phenomenon; plastic consumption began in the 20th century. Four fifths of plastic waste are produced on land, and the remaining fifth comes from marine activities.

The harmful effects of plastic bags on wildlife

Among this waste “landing” in the ocean are plastic bags, especially those considered as non-reusable.



In France, not so long ago, complimentary plastic bags to take shopping home in could be found at the checkout in shops. These are doomed to create a huge amount of waste and cause considerable damages in terms of pollution. If, in the best-case scenario, they are thrown in the bin, in the worst-case they end up in nature… This is in part because of their lightness; they get blown away, float and very often end their journey in the oceans.

Like other types of plastic waste, they are harmful for the health and the survival of wildlife, as these plastics are regularly ingested by birds, marine mammals, and fish. The various consequences of ingesting these plastics are often deadly for the animals concerned

We can take the following as examples:

  • Tortoises who confuse bags with jellyfish are at risk of suffocation.

  • The ingestion of plastics can cause the risk of death by hunger: the animal’s stomach fills with rubbish and it can no longer feed itself.



Baleine de Cuvier découverte avec 30 sacs en plastique dans l'estomac, Norvège

© Université de Bergen

A recent and sadly striking story is that of the Cuvier whale, who beached himself several times at the end of January on the island of Sotra and who had to be euthanised to end his interminable suffering.

The subsequent autopsy revealed that there were more than 30 plastic bags in the whale’s stomach and he was suffering from malnutrition. Unfortunately, this case is far from being an exception and is symbolic of the dangers which surround animals who live alongside waste.

New French legislation concerning the consumption of non-reusable plastic bags

For many years now, new legislation in France has been implemented, regulating the provision of plastic bags.

These new laws concern single-use plastic bags, the non-compostable thin bags (less than 50 microns). First of all, they gradually disappeared from the checkouts of supermarkets up until their total ban on the 1st July 2016. Then on the 1st January 2017, the ban was extended to include bags containing fruits and vegetables, and other products available ‘in bulk’.

Apart from bags, it will soon be forbidden to sell other products containing plastic:

  • Cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads (will be banned from the 1st January 2018)

  • Cotton ear-buds (from 2020)

  • Disposable crockery (from 2020)


Let’s act : alternatives to plastic

Concerning shopping bags, there are diverse, and practical, alternatives: biodegradable plastic bags, bags made from fabric or paper, baskets, tote bags etc. If we leave our bag at home by mistake, we can usually find one of the alternatives at the checkout counter.

In the fresh food, ‘bulk’, or in the fruit and vegetables sections, the bags that are available must be compostable with a minimum content of bio based material i.e. a material of biological origin. This minimum content required today (in 2017) is 30% and is continually increasing, up to 50% by 2025. It is also possible to use reusable bags, like cotton bags, and for those less fashion-conscious, in certain shops these bags are already available to buy (especially in the shops selling bio products).


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