Banning Single-Use Plastics: Can Armenia Take Out the Trash for Good?

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Stand outside of any supermarket in Yerevan for an afternoon and Armenia’s plastic problem comes into focus. In a larger, wealthier nation, it’s easy to lose sight of the waste stream, or how our plastics end up in landfills and waterways. In Armenia, plastic pollutants are impossible to ignore. Trash is everywhere, and it has nowhere to go.

The current administration hopes to change this. In July, the Minister of Nature Protection Erik Grigoryan announced a broad policy decision to ban single use plastics: first, implemented in a single community, then scaled upward. Deputy Minister Irina Ghaplanyan outlined this announcement further, clarifying specific goals and certain obstacles on the road to a cleaner Armenia.


Toprak Trouble: New policy tries to sort out Armenia’s plastic problem

An overflowing trashcan in Yerevan (Photo: Elize Manoukian)

Out of all of the issues of environmental protection sitting on Ghaplanyan’s desk, plastic is the most visible.

“For a landlocked country, we have a serious problem of solid waste pollution of our rivers and Lake Sevan,” said Ghaplanyan. “This [ban] is something that has to happen one way or another.”

Ghaplanyan defined single-use plastics as plastic bags, plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and plastic cutlery. Developing sustainable and controlled alternatives to food packaging presents another challenge, one that the Ministry will tackle in a later phase.

According to Ghaplanyan, the administration has already begun its partnership with Talin, a town of 3,800 in the Aragotsotn province which is already home to the largest solar power plant in Armenia. The official plastic ban in the community is set to kick off this fall. The Ministry picked Talin to pilot the ban because its demographics and infrastructure fit neatly within their vision. The town is not too small, but not too big either. Talin also lacks organized irrigation, and faces endemic poverty and out-migration. Most importantly, the town has displayed the “readiness of community leaders to take on this challenging project,” Ghaplanyan said.

The Ministry will invite its international partners to Talin, where they can freely implement existing and planned “green” projects. The hope is that by streamlining, each project will ensure the sustainability of another.

“Talin will serve as a mental exercise to inspire a shift in national behavior,” Ghaplanyan said.

“We want it to be a small success story, but a home-born success story, so that we may point to that community and say, ‘It worked here, so there’s no reason it won’t work in yours.’”

In parallel with the Talin project, the Ministry is currently drafting legislative plans to contain the largest source of plastic angst: bags and bottles. A transitional plastic bag tax will be the next move, slated for January 1, 2019.

This is a tax, not a fee; the revenue will not be absorbed by stores, but will be collected by tax agencies and reallocated to environmental protection. If properly adopted and regulated, Ghaplanyan says the Ministry will have a better idea of when to move into the next phase: the national ban.

Plastic bags are a nuisance on the Armenian landscape, said Alen Amirkhanian, former advisor to the Ministry of Nature Protection and current director of the American University of Armenia’s Acopian Center for the Environment. Bags are carried away by the wind and the country’s waterways, and cling to plants, trees, and bushes, creating a visual impact of chaos. Ghaplanyan similarly identified plastic bags as a the logical place to begin this nebulous effort.

“We believe that we need to join the ranks of countries that have already banned plastic bags as soon as possible, because with that, comes expert and financial assistance that we are desperate to receive,” Ghaplanyan explained. “[Armenia has] a lot of environmental issues, and we do not have the capacity to find sustainable solutions to all of them.”

For perspective, Amirkhanian pointed to the fact that on a global scale, the per capita plastic and consumer waste generated in Armenia is relatively low. He places the number in between 800 grams and 1 kilogram, while the average global citizen creates at least 1.2 kilograms a day, per a 2012 study by the World Bank. (In the U.S., the average consumer generates nearly 2 kilograms, making its residents the most wasteful in the world.)

Of course, the fastest way to manage waste, especially in cities, is to decrease economic activity and reduce consumption; but to anyone accustomed to the grotesque convenience of the resource-intensive, consumer-based economic lifestyle, this is not an attractive option.

Perhaps the problem in Armenia is that waste is not properly managed, Amirkhanian suggested. If so, Armenia is far from alone on this issue, which plagues municipal governments everywhere. As reported by Armenian Weekly, Armenia lacks a single sanitary landfill to meet the needs of Armenia’s rural or urban regions. Current plans to build one in southeast Yerevan have drawn ire for lacking a resource recovery component, a requirement by EU standards. The municipal government said it cannot afford to include a recycling component unless it pays for itself, despite the project’s 24 million euro budget. Several private and foreign-owned companies currently offer recycling services, yet collection rates are extremely low. In the meantime, residents resort to “unofficial” dumping and burning of trash throughout the region.

Of course, the fastest way to manage waste, especially in cities, is to decrease economic activity and reduce consumption; but to anyone accustomed to the grotesque convenience of the resource-intensive, consumer-based economic lifestyle, this is not an attractive option.

It is also worth noting that plastic bags carry a particular ‘baggage’ in post-Soviet countries. To transport groceries and other goods, citizens of the USSR carried a netted, cloth grocery bag on their person at all times (which came to be jokingly referred to in Russian as avoiska, the “what if” bags, as you never knew when you would need them). As a result, reusability came to be associated with many of the hardships and scarcity of Soviet life, in which resources were not always readily available. In contrast, in the nineties after the USSR collapsed, certain stores began offering plastic bags as a courtesy to consumers. They were welcomed into society for their convenience, perceived luxury, and abundance.

Supermarkets in Armenia today resemble their Western counterparts more closely than their Soviet-era ones; but unfortunately, so do the country’s problems with trash. Unlike the varieties of shampoo that now line the shelves of Armenian supermarkets, solutions to Armenia’s trash woes won’t fit in a plastic bag.

While this seems like a bleak point of departure, attitudes towards plastics everywhere are changing. Charged by the disturbing images of plastic waste contaminating oceans and landscapes, countries from Kenya to China are adopting policies to reduce single-use plastics and embrace more sustainable alternatives. The Republic of Georgia, which shares one of Armenia’s open borders, only embraced resource recovery within the last 3 years, and reportedly banned plastic bags in 2017. Like Armenia, Georgia has multiple plastic bag suppliers within the country.

Given the raison d’etre of Armenia’s current administration, and the ideology of personal responsibility that they champion, there is truly no better time for Armenia to take action on single use plastics. Ghaplanyan recalled how after mass gatherings, a critical space during the Velvet Revolution, young people would return the next morning to pick up leftover trash.

“A green Armenia, leading the region, and even the rest of the world would be a sense of pride for younger generations to feel more connected to the country,” Ghaplanyan said. “Certainly, I’m taking a step further and saying that the environment should be a uniting platform for the Armenian transnation.”

However, for a ban to take hold, a mass awareness campaign must first reach the average consumer. Ghaplanyan said the Ministry is developing its approach to educating the public on the issue, of which the pilot ban in Talin is a central part. The Ministry also plans to use their television airtime to release a series of PSA’s.

“People are intelligent consumers,” Amirkhanian said. “They may not be aware, but they are critical thinkers.”


Asking Armenians: It’s Not Personal, It’s Plastic

To find out what regular people thought of the ban, my friend Ani and I went around the city to ask them. Our first stop was the Nor Zovq supermarket on Saryan Street. Nor Zovq was one of several supermarkets to begin charging customers for plastic bags in 2016, instead of covering the cost through products.

You would think that the extra fee might make discourage shoppers from accepting bags, but given the steady flow of plastic bag-laden shoppers, it appears 10 dram (2 cents) is a negligible amount. Most customers hardly notice it.

We encountered Ambat Bayaltan exiting the store with bag containing single bottle of Coca-Cola. He said he knew plastic bags don’t break down, but before abstaining from them entirely, wished to know more about alternatives: “If they’re free, then of course. But if they’re not, then it depends on how much they cost.”

Anna Sahakyan recently visited New York, and was impressed by their recycling program. “You know, I would be more for it if there was a recycling program for plastic bottles and bags than a ban,” she said, “Just like it’s done outside of Armenia, there should be a day where plastic bottles and everything else could be recycled.”

You would think that the extra fee might make discourage shoppers from accepting bags, but given the steady flow of plastic bag-laden shoppers, it appears 10 dram (2 cents) is a negligible amount. Most customers hardly notice it.

While these conversations were happening, a store employee spoke up to say that reusable bags would never work. “They’re not convenient,” he chimed, “They’re not convenient.”

Outside of the supermarket, we chatted with Ruzanna Ghukasyan, whose small fruit stand relies heavily on plastic. “If I can’t use plastic, then I can’t sell my fruit. If they give me paper that looks nice, that doesn’t smell and that holds up, that would be better. But if not, what else can I do?”

She explained that each morning, a plastic distributor comes to her stand to sell her hundreds of bags. Sometimes, they even try to sell her fewer bags for the same price. Ghukasyan trusts “Nikol” to make this problem right, and used an endearing Armenian idiom to convey her affection to the new Prime Minister (an expression too colorful, unfortunately, to be published here).

Harut Ptukyan is the shopkeeper of a small convenience store, which sells mostly soft drinks, gum, and cigarettes. Plastic bags are affordable for him and his customers, he argued. The ban might work in a European city, “but would not work for our country.”

“There are lots of things that are bad for the environment,” he said, “like cars driven with gas.” As for the trees outside of Yerevan laden with plastic bags? “That’s the trash collector’s fault,” he replied.

Even in a country as small as Armenia, the connection between a bag used once and caught on a tree for half a millenia can feel pointless, and distant. But hope remains that Armenians will be able to see past this dissonance, and look towards a future in which we use precious resources to meet real needs, instead of our immediate desires.

Back at Nor Zovq, Garen Ananian walked out of the supermarket with a plastic bag. The ban is correct, he said, of course it’s correct. But what will it change?

“Has anything changed after the revolution?” my colleague responded.

Garen thought about it for a second. “That’s another conversation.”

Street interviews by Ani Yavrenc

Author information

Elize Manoukian

Elize Manoukian

Elize Manoukian is a Californian fugitive currently hiding out somewhere in Yerevan. She enjoys baking fruit tarts, trouble makers, and ruthless criticisms of everything existing.

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Source: Armenian Weekly
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