Marks and Spencer is to begin charging its food shoppers for carrier bags.
Marks and Spencer food customers will have to pay for carrier bags
Customers will have to pay 5p for plastic bags, with the money raised going to an environmental charity.
Chief executive Sir Stuart Rose said the company wanted to "make it easy for our customers to do their bit to help the environment".
Campaigners say plastic bags damage the environment. Some 13bn are given free to UK shoppers every year, and they take an estimated 1,000 years to decay.
The move by Marks and Spencer follows a trial at 50 of its stores in Northern Ireland and south-west England, which resulted in demand for polythene bags falling by more than 70%.
Sir Stuart said that if that figure was replicated across the country, the move could reduce the number of bags used by 280m each year.
"On top of this, our customers will be raising valuable funds to go to our partner charity, Groundwork, to invest in much-needed green spaces in our neighbourhoods.
Sir Stuart said the firm had ambitious environmental plans which included sending no waste to landfill by 2012.
He described the charge on food bags, and not all of Marks and Spencer's plastic bags, as a "first step".
He said: "The biggest usage of bags in our business, by a huge amount, is plastic bags in food."
Marks and Spencer has among the heaviest food packaging of major food retailers, and only 60% of it is recyclable, according to the Local Government Association.
But Sir Stuart told BBC Breakfast that 90% of the company's packaging would be recyclable if local authorities "could get their act together and all have the same organisational structure in terms of what you can recycle".
HAVE YOUR SAY
Sir Stuart defended his company's packaging policies, but added: "We do need to reduce packaging. We are going to reduce packaging by 20% over the next three years, in foods, and then improve our ability to recycle it."
If the shops stopped using plastic bags, so would I
Andy Roberts, UK
Groundwork chief executive Tony Hawkhead said: "We all want our neighbourhoods to be cleaner and greener, and our experience shows that when a major household name takes the initiative, it can encourage millions of people to change their behaviour.
"Not only will this scheme reduce the amount of food carrier bags sent to landfill sites, but it will also help improve the quality of life in towns and cities across the country."
Ireland introduced a tax on plastic bags in 2002, which currently stands at 22 cents - about 17p - and led to a reduction in their use - but, according to the British Retail Consortium, sales of bin liners across the country subsequently rose.
Sir Stuart Rose says M&S has a plan to reduce its packaging
Supermarket Tesco used 3bn plastic bags last year. It does not charge for them, instead offering bonuses such as extra clubcard points if they re-use bags.
A Sainsbury's spokeswoman said the supermarket had a policy of encouraging its customers to "reduce, reuse and recycle".
She also said that since April 2007 there had been a 10% reduction in the number of free plastic bags given out, which is the equivalent of 85m bags.
A spokesman for Asda said it was on target to reduce the environmental impact of its carrier bags by 25% by the end of 2008.
As part of this aim, the supermarket has implemented several initiatives in all of its stores.
These include offering customers four types of reusable bags - a 5p plastic 'bag for life' that is replaced for free, a black woven polypropylene bag, an organic cotton bag and a Jute bag which is carbon neutral.
All Asda stores now have recycling bins for carrier bags, which has resulted in 133 tonnes of plastic bags being recycled.
Geography student Elaine Siddall, 18, from Garston, Liverpool, says all plastic bags should be banned.
She said: "They do terrible damage and there are better alternatives.
"Personally, I use a bag-for-life and I would never pay for a carrier bag. It's better for the environment because we would use less packaging."
Mary Tasker, 65, a cleaner from Kensington, Liverpool, uses plastic bags as bin liners.
She said: "I don't think they should charge because the bags are advertising their business.
"It's is always the shoppers who have to fork out. If Marks and Spencer don't want people to use plastic bags they should offer a free alternative."
All food customers at Marks and Spencer will get free long-lasting bags from early April for one month. The 5p charge will then begin on 6 May.