Previously unpublished government research has revealed that plastic bags may not be the environmental scourge they were originally thought to be.

Amid widespread calls for the government to introduce a levy for single-use bags, a leaked draft report by the Environmental Agency has revealed that plastic bags are generally less damaging to the climate than cotton ‘bags for life’ and paper bags that are used as a low impact alternative.

The research, which is currently under review by the Environment Agency, showed that single-use bags are almost 200 times less damaging to the environment that cotton bags and have less than one third of the CO2 emissions given out by paper bags.

The report found that a cotton ‘bag for life’ would have to be used 171 times in order to have a lower carbon emission than that of a plastic bag. 

“The high density polythene (HDPE) bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the single use options in nine of the 10 impact categories,” said report author Dr Chris Edwards. 

British Retail Consortium sustainability director Andrew Opie said that focusing on plastic bags distracted from other environmental issues. “Agonising over bags misses the point,” he said. “To obsess over bags distracts consumers from making bigger changes to their habits which would do more to benefit the environment.”

The Welsh government recently passed legislation to introduce a 5p levy on all plastic bags which will come into effect this May, while Northern Ireland has proposed a 15p charge for bags that is expected to raise £4m a year for the economy.