IT'S the green breakthrough environmentalists have been waiting for decades to see ...

for the first time, plastic wrapping that disintegrates without polluting the environment forever have been introduced by one of Britain's leading retailers.

John Lewis has started using what it says is the UK's first biodegradable polythene packaging for millions of the products it sells every year in its department stores.

Compounds added to new bags for bed linen and school wear ensure they break down harmlessly even in landfill dumps, the company claims. The plastic will rot into water, gas and humus within 15 years, it says, compared with hundreds of years for conventional plastic bags.

Later this year John Lewis is planning to start wrapping more products in the biodegradable plastic, including its own-brand curtains. And the company promises that, after six months, it will make the technology behind the new packaging available to other retailers, so it can spread.

"Our new bags are designed to make it easier for our customers to dispose of polythene bags in a more environmentally sustainable way, helping to reduce our overall impact as a business," said Mark Gallen, packaging design and production manager at John Lewis.

Working with suppliers, he discovered that introducing a small amount of additive would enable polyethylene to degrade even in the absence of air, light or heat. As yet, he hasn't disclosed what that additive is.

Gallen pointed out that John Lewis had earlier replaced PVC packaging with recyclable polyethylene.

"While it is possible to recycle traditional plastic bags at some recycling centres, it is less common to be able to recycle this type of plastic at kerbside collection points, meaning that most of it is thrown in the bin," he said.

"Until recycling facilities are more widely available, most people will throw the packaging away. We know that our customers want to reduce their environmental impact, and this new material makes it as easy for them to do this."

John Lewis expects to sell more than three million items of bed linen wrapped in biodegradable bags every year. A £9 billion partnership co-owned by its 81,000 staff, John Lewis operates 38 shops across the UK, including stores in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, as well as 285 Waitrose supermarkets.

The firm's move on packaging was welcomed by environmental groups, who urged retailers to go further. "Less waste means less landfills blighting communities and less proposals for incinerators," said a spokesman for Friends of the Earth Scotland.

"John Lewis's initiative is welcome and will no doubt reduce the environmental impact of this type of packaging. We would like to see retailers going even further and removing packaging from more products."

He noted that 50 years ago, customers were happy to buy sheets from drapers without any packaging. "With a little more thought, modern retailers could do more to eliminate packaging entirely and John Lewis could be a leader on this."

WWF spokesman Lang Banks said: "This is a good step forward in reducing the environmental impact of a kind of packaging that often ends up in landfill.

"This initiative from John Lewis is welcome and their willingness to share this innovation with other companies is to be commended."