Gordon Brown has warned retailers he will force them to cut down on plastic bag use if they do not act voluntarily.
Some 13bn plastic bags are issued to UK shoppers each year
Writing in the Daily Mail, he told stores that "If government compulsion is needed to make the change, we will take the necessary steps."
Campaigners say plastic bags, which take an estimated 1,000 years to decay, damage the environment.
Marks and Spencer has already announced that it will charge food shoppers 5p for each bag from 6 May.
The move follows a trial at 50 of its outlets in Northern Ireland and south-west England, which resulted in demand for polythene bags falling by more than 70%.
Mr Brown praised the chain - which says the money raised will go to environmental charities - as well as Ikea, which stopped providing single-use plastic bags from its branches in July 2007.
But he insisted that, if other stores did not follow suit, the government would be "ready to do what it can".
"We do not take such steps lightly - but the damage that single-use plastic bags inflict on the environment is such that strong action must be taken," he said.
Ideally, he said, any scheme to cut down on their use would also secure funds for environmental organisations.
Downing Street did not give a timescale for any legislation to force shops to cut down on plastic bags.
Mr Brown added that carrier bags were one of the most visible and easily-reduced forms of waste and shoppers, supermarkets and the government all had to "accept our own responsibility for ending the environmental damage we are causing".
He said he and his wife, Sarah, had tried to cut their carbon footprints by fitting solar panels to heat water at their home in Scotland, recycling and composting, using the train, choosing low-energy electrical goods and trying not to leave them on stand-by.
But nonetheless, he said, they would end up with "a bin full of plastic bags" after supermarket deliveries, with each bag often only carrying a few goods. "This cannot be right," he added.
An estimated 13bn carrier bags are given away to UK shoppers each year.
Meanwhile the Conservatives have released official figures which indicate that government departments and agencies have bought more than 1.2 million plastic bags branded with their logos over the last two years.
Shadow communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles said: "Labour should practise what they preach and start showing some social responsibility."
But Downing Street said the Government's Central Office of Information had put in place plans to cut Whitehall's carbon footprint and use fewer plastic bags.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "Following the Prime Minister's announcement today, I think we can expect that use of single-use plastic bags will be reduced in line with the aims for the wider business community."