Defra is continuing to seek legal powers to make retailers charge for carrier bags. The Government is planning to introduce legislation in the Climate Change Bill, currently going through Parliament, to implement a ‘bag tax’ – a mandatory charge on disposable plastic bags. It will use these powers if retailers fail to achieve a 70% reduction in bags handed out.

But this action was more about changing culture than reducing waste, a Defra spokeswoman said. “Bags have quite a significant environmental impact,” she said. “But more important they are symbolic of the throwaway culture we have to change.”

In February, retailers had only reduced actual bag numbers by 8%. The multiples have all since taken extra steps to cut bag use and to include fluctuating numbers of shoppers in their publicised cuts. Environmental campaigners questioned the high profile given to plastic bags.

“Bags are a very minor contributor to total waste,” said Friends of the Earth supermarkets campaigner Helen Rimmer. “Plastic bags get so much attention because it’s one of the easiest and most visible things supermarkets can do, but it’s a distraction from the bigger issues.”