The adverse environmental impacts of plastic bags, including production energy costs, limited lifespan, increasing landfill content and inability to biodegrade, provide symbolic and practical evidence of a ‘throwaway’ consumer culture which acts as a significant barrier to sustainable consumption in particular and sustainable development in general. Decoupling consumer behaviour from plastic bag use is therefore an important challenge in the pursuit of sustainable consumption as a precursor to achieving sustainable development. This article provides a critical evaluation of that challenge, set within the theoretical framework of sustainable development. It examines the adverse environmental impacts of plastic bag use and evaluates initiatives by governments and businesses internationally to change consumer behaviour regarding the use of plastic bags in line with sustainable development principles. The politics of this agenda are analysed using a combination of consumer policy and public policy perspectives. Finally, the article draws conclusions regarding the earlier analysis.