Supermarkets have been warned that they must cut the number of plastic bags they distribute by 70 per cent by spring 2009 or be forced to start charging for them.

Yesterday, environment minister Joan Ruddock gave supermarkets a deadline for the first time. Grocers have been working with the Government on a voluntary basis to cut the number of bags given away by 25 per cent.

Failure by retailers to hit this target may mark the end of free plastic bags in stores. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons have all opposed the plans calling for the right to continue giving away free bags.

9.1 billion bags are thrown away each year and the Government hopes that the new targets would cut the number to 3.9 billion.

Marks & Spencer has cut the number of bags its hands out by 80 per cent since it began to charge customers 5p per bag earlier this year.