A recent study by the French government agency ADEME assesses the environmental impact of the alternatives to the plastic fruit and vegetable bags banned since 2018 using scientific analyses of the full life cycle. The result is somewhat surprising: reusable alternatives are by no means more environmentally friendly than the single use ones and paper is not the best alternative from an environmental point of view. We will explain this briefly.
French policy on lightweight single-use plastic bags evaluated
In 2015, the European Union issued a Directive (2015/720) to restrict the use of single-use plastic bags, with the aim of reducing the negative impact on the environment. The transposition into French law led to a total ban on the use of such plastic bags, with the exception of bags that are home compostable and contain at least 40% material from vegetal sources (since the beginning of 2020 this minimum has been raised to 50% and in 2025 minimum 60% will be required). As a result of this legislation, many shops switched to reusable alternatives, including cotton, or to paper bags (for single use).
In 2019, the French government agency ADEME (L ‘Agence de l’environnement et de la maîtrise de l’énergie, recently renamed Agence de la transition écologique) commissioned an investigation into whether the objective of the legislation was indeed achieved. To this end, she had life cycle assessments (LCA) carried out on the various commonly used alternatives. The result was recently published.
 ADEME. J.Lhotellier, X.Logel, I.Decos. 2019. ACV comparative de sacs destinés à l’emballage de marchandises au point de vente autres que les sacs de caisse – Rapport. 210 pages
Reusable bags don’t live up to the promise
Reusable packaging is often being touted as the ideal solution. But that does not appear to be the case for this type of bags. For example, the ADEME study establishes that a reusable cotton bag must already be reused at least 40 times to achieve the same environmental impact as the single use alternatives. And this is only the case when you wash it very sporadically. With every wash, the negative environmental impact shoots up again.
The pessimistic assessment is partly due to the strongly negative environmental impact of growing cotton. This requires a high water consumption (up to 11,000 litres for 1 kg of cotton) and a high use of pesticides (up to 25% of all pesticides produced in this world are destined for cotton cultivation). Moreover, such cotton products are usually made in sweat shops with very bad working conditions and sometimes even child labour (this latter assessment was not a part of the ADEME LCA).
At the same time, a joint study by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Greenpeace UK shows that reusable bags (‘bags for life’) are barely actually reused in the United Kingdom.
 ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATION AGENCY & GREENPEACE. N. N. 2019. Checking Out on Plastics II: Breakthroughs and backtracking from supermarkets – Report. 40 pages
Paper is not the best alternative
The ADEME study also concludes that paper is not the best alternative from an environmental point of view. On at least 3 of the 6 assessment points, paper bags score worse than the home compostable bags made from renewable material (from a vegetable source).
What is a problem for paper is the high water and energy consumption during production and the high impact of logistics. Belgian UGent expert, Prof. Kim Ragaert says that to have the same environmental impact as a single-use plastic bag, a bag made of 100% recycled paper must be reused at least 4 times!
Only … recycled paper cannot be brought into contact with food (vegetables & fruit) for sanitary reasons. So all paper fruit and vegetable bags are made from freshly felled trees. Then you have to reuse that bag many times more to have the same environmental impact. And that simply doesn’t happen.
“And the winner is …”
What we already know for a long time has now been officially confirmed by a neutral French government agency: home-compostable bags, which consist of at least 40% renewable material (from plant sources), are the best alternative for packing fresh fruit and vegetables in the supermarket and on the street markets. All the more so if the bag is subsequently reused to collect food waste in the kitchen as part of a source separated waste collection scheme. And the steady rise of the minimum renewable content only makes it even better.