A levy on single-use plastic bags should be introduced in England, environmental groups urged on Wednesday.
The call comes after the latest figures showed the number of carrier bags being given out by supermarkets rose by more than 5% last year across the UK, the second annual rise in a row.
According to figures from the waste reduction body Wrap, supermarket customers used almost eight billion carrier bags in 2011, a 5.4% rise on the 7.6 billion in 2010, with each person using an average of almost 11 a month.
But in Wales, where a 5p charge was introduced last October, the amount of single-use bags being taken home has fallen significantly.
England is the only part of the UK which has no plans for a plastic bag charge, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Keep Britain Tidy, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Surfers Against Sewage are calling for one to be brought in. The groups are calling for a charge that goes to charities, rather than a tax that goes to the government.
The organisations say plastic bags end up littering England’s streets, countryside and beaches, while in the sea they can entangle or be swallowed by wildlife.
Most plastic takes an estimated 450 to 1,000 years to degrade at sea, but plastic may never fully degrade but simply break down into smaller and smaller pieces – eventually forming plastic dust, the environmental groups said.
And research is looking at whether small particles of plastic may be able to absorb toxins from the sea and then be eaten, with the toxins passed up the food chain to people.
Samantha Harding, CPRE “stop the drop” campaign manager, said bag levies had been shown to work in Wales and in Ireland, where plastic bag use fell by 90% following the introduction of a charge.
“A levy is coming to Northern Ireland and Scotland is already consulting on one. Why must the English countryside be the last to benefit from good environmental policies?” she asked.
Dr Sue Kinsey, litter policy officer for MCS, said: “Single-use bags and plastic bags in particular are a menace to the amazing marine wildlife found in English waters.
“Animals get entangled in them and mistake them for food. This can lead to infections, strangulation, starvation and even death. A levy is a simple, effective way to stop such a pervasive and ubiquitous form of pollution.”
Some retailers have introduced charges for their single-use plastic bags, but the groups are urging the government to follow the lead of Wales and bring in a small levy on carrier bags across England.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We want to work with retailers to help them lift their game to cut the number of bags they hand out.
“We are monitoring the results of the charging scheme in Wales and the outcome of the Scottish consultation on a charge.”