The European Commission has released a series of measures to reduce the use of lightweight plastic bags in the European Union and limit the negative impacts on the environment.
The Commission intends to achieve this by reducing littering and encouraging waste prevention and the more efficient use of resources, with positive knock-on effects for the economy.
The way to make this happen, the Commission says, is to revise the packaging and marine strategy directives to limit EU consumption of thin plastic bags, defined as having a thickness of below 50 microns (0.05 millimetres).
The EU executive argues that thin plastic bags pose a greater threat to the environment than thicker ones, as they are reused less often, are tossed aside more often and break apart more easily.
The bags contain often harmful substances known to be dangerous to marine life, in particular, the Commission says.
Announcing the proposals, Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik said: "We're taking action to solve a very serious and highly visible environmental problem. Every year, more than 8 billion plastic bags end up as litter in Europe, causing enormous environmental damage.”
The Commission estimates that every EU citizen uses some 200 plastic bags every year. Some 90% of these are estimated to be lightweight bags.
In Denmark and Finland, the yearly average consumption of thin plastic bags is only four per person, compared to 466 in Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.
Some EU countries have managed to greatly reduce their use of plastic bags, for example by introducing pricing in supermarkets and awareness campaigns.
The Commission recommends that member states follow the example of Denmark and Finland and introduce mandatory charges and, possibly, taxes. But the countries are free to choose their own measures, as long as they achieve the aim of cutting plastic bag use.
If other countries introduced strong legislation, the EU could reduce its use of plastic bags by as much as 80%.
The EU executive justifies its right to legislate on plastic bags as they create cross-border problems, including marine pollution.
The proposals now head to the European Council and Parliament for debate and possible adoption.