(CN) - The nearly 100 billion plastic grocery bags used in the EU annually came under fire Monday with a proposal from the European Commission.
While internal market rules prevent regulators from endorsing an outright ban similar to those in California cities like Los Angeles, Santa Cruz
and San Francisco
, the commissioners advised member states to reduce plastic bag use by setting national targets and charging consumers for plastic bags.
Several EU countries already charge for grocery bags and have seen a marked reduction in plastic litter, regulators said.
The scheme specifically targets lighter-weight bags with a thickness below 50 microns, which are reused less frequently than thicker bags and often end up as litter, according to a commission statement.
"We're taking action to solve a very serious and highly visible environmental problem," environment commissioner Janez Potocnik said. "Every year, more than 8 billion plastic bags end up as litter in Europe, causing enormous environmental damage. Some member states have already achieved great results in terms of reducing their use of plastic bags. If others followed suit we could reduce today's overall consumption in the European Union by as much as 80 percent."
The properties that make plastic bags commercially successful - low weight and resistance to breaking down - also make them environmentally dangerous, the regulators said. In addition to surviving in the environment for hundreds of years, many bags end up in the ocean and pose hazards to marine life and birds.
There is broad public support for the restrictions across the EU, the commissioners said. But Europeans used an estimated 98.6 billion plastic bags in 2010, which amounts to 198 bags per year for every EU citizen.
Per capita use by country varies wildly, with the average citizen of Denmark and Finland using just four bags per year. In Poland, Portugal and Slovakia, however, the average person uses 466 plastic bags every year.
Lawmakers from both the EU Council and Parliament must approve the proposal, which could take effect in 2015.