Shoppers sell out as more choose to use store plastic bags
The latest statistics show customers bundled their purchases into around 6.4 billion carrier bags last year - up on the 6.1 billion of the previous period.
The 5 per cent rise was branded a "backward step" by conservationists and follows a massive drive by retailers, green campaigners and politicians to reduce the use of plastic bags which have otherwise been in steady decline since 2006.
Phil Knowling, of the conservation charity Living Coasts, said: "I'm surprised, because it seemed like the whole idea of plastic bags being used and abused and thrown away freely was a thing of the past, but it seems not.
"It seems like a backward step for the campaign and that is a great shame."
Recycling Minister Lord Henley raised the prospect of legislation if retailers fail to cut back on the numbers of single-use bags offered to customers.
"This isn't good enough," he said. "Retailers need to take responsibility and lift their game to cut down the number of single use bags they hand out.
"If results do not improve we will consider additional measures to make this happen, including legislation."
But the figures, released by the government's waste body WRAP, were termed "encouraging" by the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
According to findings, some 40 per cent fewer thin carrier bags were used by customers last year than in 2006, when the number stood at around 10.7 billion.
A spokesman for the BRC said the recent increase should not be allowed to overshadow the "major progress" made by the sector during a period of rising sales and changing shopping habits.
Bob Gordon, the consortium's environment chief, cited an increase in the number of trips that consumers make to stores and added: "These figures show retailers and customers are changing their habits without the need for compulsory bag bans or charges.
"In the face of sales growth it was inevitable that year-on-year reductions would be hard to maintain and the overall numbers remain the sort of result other environmental campaigns can only dream of.
"Retailers, working with consumers, will continue to do all they can to drive down the number of carrier bags being given out wherever possible, but it's time to accept bags are not the be all and end all of environmental issues."
He said retailers were now pursuing "much more significant" environmental issues such as energy use, waste and the impact of the products people buy.
"An obsession with carrier bags must not get in the way of these bigger green goals," he said.
The figures show people use on average 8.6 single-use bags per month, compared to 14.7 in 2006 and 8.2 between June 2009 and May 2010.
Overall, a total of 6.8 billion bags - including single-use, bags-for-life and reusable bags such as those made from cotton and jute - were used in 2010.
This compares with 10.9 billion in 2006 and represents a 6 per cent increase on the number used between 2009-2010 which stood at 6.5 billion.
The figures are set against a backdrop of 8 per cent growth in sales by participating supermarkets between 2006 and 2010.