BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union member states will be encouraged to tax or even ban plastic bags under proposals to tackle the tons of plastic waste that enters the water system and kills wildlife.
Some countries, such as Denmark, have greatly reduced the use of plastic bags by introducing mandatory charges. Monday's initiative aims to spur all 28 EU states into action.
The proposals, if adopted by member states and the European parliament, would require EU nations to cut their use of the thin plastic bags given away in shops. But they fall far short of an EU-wide ban.
It would be up to EU countries to decide how to limit use by introducing taxes, national targets or possibly bans.
"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," Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said in a statement.
In Denmark, where plastic bags are taxed, use of thin plastic bags has dropped to an estimated 4 bags per person each year, the lowest in the European Union, compared with 466 per person in Poland, Portugal and Slovakia.
In total, an estimated 98.6 billion plastic bags, mostly of the thin kind that are rarely reused and escape most easily into the environment, were placed on the EU market in 2010, the Commission said.
They have been found in the stomachs of endangered marine species, such as turtles and porpoises, and the Commission estimates the stomachs of 94 percent of all birds in the North Sea contain plastic.
Plastic bags can last for hundreds of years, meaning they accumulate in the environment.
(Reporting by Barbara Lewis; Editing by John O'Donnell and Janet Lawrence)