The European Commission has unveiled measures aimed at reducing the use of lightweight plastic bags, arguing that they clutter up seas and can persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
“Every year, more than eight billion plastic bags end up as litter in Europe, causing enormous environmental damage,” said EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik on Monday.
The proposal would require EU members to take steps to reduce the use of carrier bags with a thickness below 50 microns – or 0.05 millimetres – arguing that these are “less frequently re-used than thicker plastic carrier bags and more prone to littering.”
Such measures could include a compulsory charge for disposable shopping bags or, in certain circumstances, a ban.
Plastic bags are thought to be especially damaging to marine environments, where animals mistakenly swallow them or get caught up in them. In the North Sea, the stomachs of 94 per cent of sea birds contain plastic, the commission said.
In 2010, each citizen in the European Union used an estimated 198 plastic carrier bags on average – or almost 100 billion bags in total – according to the bloc’s executive. The vast majority of these were lightweight bags.
But this figure fluctuates hugely between member states, with people in Denmark and Finland using just four single-use plastic bags annually, while citizens in several eastern European countries were estimated to use more than 450 bags annually.
Some of the EU’s 28 countries have already introduced measures.
Ireland says that disposable bag use plummeted from 328 bags per person annually to just 21, after it introduced a fee which now stands at 0.22 euros ($A0.32) per bag.
At present, EU members cannot introduce an outright ban. The proposed changes – which must be approved by member states and by the European Parliament – would give more leeway, although certain conditions must be met, such as not restricting trade between states.
German environmental campaign group Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) welcomed the proposal.
“Every German uses 65 bags a year, each Irish person uses 18 and each Dane just four. We therefore think a tax on all single-use bags is appropriate,” said Leif Miller of NABU.