Shoppers in England faced paying a charge for plastic carrier bags from today in a move aimed at helping the environment, although smaller, independent retailers are exempt from the rule. 

The five pence charge per single-use bag is intended to reduce litter and protect wildlife. 

The British government expects the scheme to reduce usage by up to 80%in supermarkets. 

The number of single-use bags given out by major supermarkets in England reached more than 7.6 billion last year - the equivalent of 140 per person and 61,000 tonnes in total. 

"The more bags we take, the more plastic makes its way into our environment, blighting our high streets, spoiling our enjoyment of the countryside, and damaging our wildlife and marine environments," said Environment Minister Rory Stewart. 

"Simple changes to our shopping routines, such as taking our own bags with us or using more bags for life, can make a huge difference in reducing the amount of plastic in circulation meaning we can all enjoy a cleaner, healthier country," he added. 

Four pence of the charge goes to UK charities, with the remaining penny going to the Treasury.

It is expected to generate £730m for good causes and save £60m in litter clean-up costs. 

The charge applies to retailers with 250 or more full-time equivalent employees, meaning smaller shops are not included. 

The plastic bag levy was first introduced in Ireland in 2002 at the rate of 15 cent per bag. It had an immediate effect on consumer behaviour with a decrease in plastic bag usage from an estimated 328 bags per capita to 21 bags per capita overnight. 

The current levy of 22 cent was introduced in July 2007.