The government has warned that plastic bag reduction has to improve significantly from current levels by the end of the year if retailers are to avoid being forced to charge for carriers.
A voluntary agreement is currently in place between government department Defra, 22 major retailers and six trade associations to bring about a 25% reduction in the environmental impact of plastic bags. Defra figures, however, show that there has been only a 7.79% reduction in the total number of plastic bags handed out to customers over the past year.
Defra under-secretary Joan Ruddock addressed the issue in parliament after chancellor Alistair Darling used his budget speech to announce the proposals. Ruddock told ministers the reduction in plastic bag use was "clearly not good enough".
She explained: "We intend to legislate if we do not make sufficient progress on this. We will not legislate until such time as we have given the opportunity for the agreement to run its course, but we are determined to see the end of the single-use free bag at the point of shopping."
The announcement was made as retailers came under increasing pressure to stop issuing free single-use plastic bags. Marks & Spencer recently announced it intends to charge customers 5p for plastic bags from May, while Southern Co-op has gone a step further by replacing plastic bags at a number of its stores with fully compostable GM-free starch bags, also with a 5p price tag.