(CN) - The EU moved a step closer to eliminating plastic bags - and the havoc they wreak on the planet - with the European Council's approval on Wednesday of draft legislation advanced by its permanent representatives committee and the European Parliament.
Following an agreement between the council's permanent ministers and the parliament last month, the full council passed a bill targeting plastic bags with a wall thickness below 50 microns. The lightweight bags make up the majority of bags dispensed to consumers by retailers and are rarely reused, lawmakers said.
Once formally approved, the law will require member states to either begin charging consumers for the bags or take other measures to reduce their use - since internal market rules prohibit lawmakers from instituting a full, EU-wide ban. If member states choose the latter option, the annual use of the lightweight bags must drop to an average of 90 per person by 2019 and 40 per person by 2025.
The average EU citizen used 176 pages in 2010, the council said.
Bags with a wall thickness below 15 microns are exempt from the measure, although the European Commission has been tasked with investigating how to reduce the use of very lightweight bags as well.
Additionally, the commission will present a report on the impact of oxygen-degradable bags by 2018.
The agreement comes more than a year after the commission first proposed a clampdown on the bags. In its 2013 report, the regulators said that every year 8 billion plastic bags end up as litter in Europe - much of it ending up in rivers, lakes and oceans.
According to the nonprofit environmental group Ocean Crusaders, there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean globally.
It takes between 20 and 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down into polymers and toxic chemicals, the group says.
Member states will have 18 months to implement the law once it is formally passed by EU lawmakers in January.
The California Legislature passed a full ban of single-use plastic bags this past September, becoming the first U.S. state to do so.
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