Shoppers in the UK used 7.96 billion single-use bags in 2011, a rise of 5.4 per cent on the previous year - with each person taking 10 throwaway carriers a month.

Plastic bag use rose steeply across most of the UK but in Wales, which introduced a 5p charge per bag last October, it fell by 22 per cent.

In England, which has ruled out a similar charge, the number of bags rose by 7.5 per cent and in Northern Ireland, where a levy will come into force next year, the spike was 8.1 per cent.

There was a 0.3 per cent dip in Scotland, which launched a consultation into introducing a minimum 5p levy last week.

The number of plastic bags in the UK has now increased for two years in a row, following a 4 per cent jump – the first rise in five years - to 7.56 billion in 2010.

However since 2006, when publicity highlighted the damage done by discarded bags to the countryside and seas, the annual number given out by supermarkets has fallen by 35 per cent. Over the same period supermarkets have thinner bags, halving the amount of virgin polymer used in the manufacture of all carrier bags including re-usable 'bags for life'.

The British Retail Consortium said the rise was down to changing habits in grocery shopping, with hard-up families doing several small shops a week instead of one big trip, and switching from the car to public transport.

Both factors meant they were less likely to take reusable bags, the organisation suggested.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Julian Kirby said: "A plastic bag tax in England is long overdue to tackle this appalling waste and reduce the mess unwanted bags make in our open spaces.

"But plastic bags are just the tip of the iceberg – the Government must develop a comprehensive strategy to tackle food waste, appliances that break early and the postcode lottery that means what's recyclable in one area isn't in another."

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