City leaders last night declared war on waste by launching a bid to ban plastic bags from Brighton and Hove.

Councillors voted overwhelmingly to turn the city into a plastic bag-free zone by ordering retailers not to hand them out.

Members from across the political divide joined forces to tell the Government they wanted the city to be the first in the country to have an outright ban on the plastic carrier.

Originally members were asked to put their voices to a motion for the council's chief executive to write to the Department for Environment , Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) demanding a 20p tax on every plastic bag, as they have in the Republic of Ireland.

But instead the authority decided to lobby the Government, the city's three MPs and the Local Government Association for an outright ban on bags.

Green councillor Amy Kennedy put forward the original bid for a levy on each bag.

Speaking before the meeting she said: "We welcome national and local action on the issue but we believe firmer action is required.

"We want the Government to look at the effects of introducing a levy, which has been done with great success in Ireland.

"We are also calling on all retailers in the city to follow the example of those who offer reusable bags to their customers, such as the North Laine Traders Association who have recently launched a sustainable bag."

Her motion was rejected by councillors who opted for a much tougher stance by backing a motion from Tory councillor Maria Caulfield to ban plastic bags.

Councillor Caulfield said: "This sends a clear message to consumers, retailers that plastic bags are not good for the environment."

The final vote to pass the motion was unanimous with Labour group leader Gill Mitchell adding: "We support any move to bring about some action on this issue."

Coun Kennedy did express disappointment at calls for an outright ban as she felt the system of 'polluter pays' would be more effective, but still voted for the final motion.

She said: "Within our city there are moves afoot to promote reusable bag schemes but we do need to look at other countries where they have made serious efforts to put a tax on plastic bags or to ban them."

Annually an estimated 17.5 billion plastics bags are given away nationally by supermarkets - enough to cover the combined area of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and West Yorkshire.

An estimated 3.5 million bags a year are distributed in Brighton and Hove alone.

Each bag can take anything between 400 and 1,000 years to break down and rot away. In Britain at least 200 million bags end up as waste on beaches, streets and parks every year.

European waste directives require the UK to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill by more than half by 2013 and to around a quarter of the current level by 2020.

Other directives also aim to minimise the amount of waste generated at source by imposing rules to ensure packaging can easily be recycled.

Peter Stocker, of the North Laine Traders Association, welcomed the move.

Mr Stocker said: "The association launched its own fairtrade bags early this week and believe that we need to cut down on the number of plastic bags used.

"We need to get people to think about this and even a small charge makes you think, 'Do I really need a bag?'"

British consumers use an estimated 10bn plastic bags - 167 per person - a year, according to Defra but the Government remains opposed to a ban or levy.

Early this year it struck an agreement with business bosses under which retailers voluntarily promised to cut back on bags by a quarter by the end of 2008, potentially reducing annual carbon dioxide emissions by 58,500 tonnes - equivalent to taking 18,000 cars off the road for a year.

Ireland introduced a "plastax" of about 30 cents (20p) on each bag in 2002 since when there has been a 90 per cent reduction in use.

A Defra spokeswoman said the tax had led to people buying more plastic bin liners, which were even worse than carrier bags.

To highlight the issue Brighton and Hove City Council has organised a plastic bag-free day for early next year.