Environment minister Peter Garrett said he would meet with state ministers to discuss different options to phase out the bags, including an outright ban or introducing a levy on each bag.

The Government believes it is “absolutely critical” to act this year, he said, but the move has been branded “populist politics” by the Australian Retailers Association (ARA).

Australia uses about four billion plastic bags a year, most of which currently end up in landfill or, Mr Garrett claimed, littering beauty spots and beaches.

He said: “I expect to meet with state ministers, who have been looking at this issue already, in April of this year, working cooperatively with them, and look at the different options that are there for us to speed up the phase out of plastic bags.

“We want to phase them out, so do the states, [and] we think it’s absolutely critical that we get cracking on it.”

Mr Garrett denied accusations of populist politics, arguing that a ban on plastic bags had been Labor policy for a number of years.

But the ARA said the initiative would cause confusion, increase costs and place a burden on retailers, and called for a system of voluntary compliance to reduce the number of plastic bags being used.

Executive director Richard Evans said the proposed policy was not realistic and the issue was litter, not the availability of plastic bags.

He said: “Legislation won’t fix the problem, where do you draw the line on plastic bags? Which plastic bags? What exemptions will apply? What are the alternatives?

“Is the minister suggesting we should go back to paper? Surely this will add greater problems to global warming?”

Last week China announced plans to prohibit shops from giving out free plastic bags and to ban ultra-thin bags completely.

Kate Martin

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