Georgia is letting go something it has held dear for decades – the plastic bag – becoming the first former Soviet state to adopt a ban.
It’s not just that the Caucasus nation is catching up with global efforts to reduce plastic pollution. The move marks the end of an era.
One could tell a history of the post-Soviet world through plastic bags. They began to proliferate in the 1970s. First came the fancy ones, often peddled by hucksters. They featured beautiful women in dreamy glows, handsome blokes huffing on Marlboros, flowers, parrots and even Alla Pugacheva, the Russian pop diva who successfully outlived the Soviet Union.
In the USSR, plastic bags were often a fashion choice, hallmarks of modernity and decadence.
Then came the 1990s – dark times for Georgia.
Ravaged by wars, Georgia had little electricity and no economy to speak of. The period was largely defined by ubiquitous plaid laundry bags that traders, mostly women, used to tote consumer goods in and out of Turkey. Those large, zip-up carryalls of woven plastic, known as Chinatown bags in New York or just red-white-and-blue bags elsewhere, became known as Lilo bags in Georgia, for the giant open air-market outside Tbilisi.
Many Georgians shudder at the sight of these bags, where they packed all the economic and social misery of a period they try to forget. But recently popular Georgian fashion designer Demna Gvasalia resurrected them as working-class chic.
Also widespread were small black single-use bags for groceries or small market purchases. Over time, these bags were replaced by gauzier blue, pink or transparent bags. As the economy grew stronger, chain stores began handing out their own, branded plastic bags. In recent years, everything from groceries, to gadgets, to pastries came in a plastic bag. Only a few chain stories have switched to biodegradable plastic – the only plastic that has escaped the ban.
This pervasiveness and lack of environmental awareness have taken their toll. In Georgia’s countryside, trees lining highways are often bedecked in colorful shreds of plastic bags discarded from cars. In the cities, flimsy plastic bags fly around the streets on windy days. Swimming at Georgia’s Black Sea coast often involves wading through flotillas of plastic bags, bottles and other synthetic items best left unmentioned.
The initial stage of the ban, which came into force on October 1, outlawed single-use bags below 15 microns (0.015 millimeters) in thickness, which make up about 40 percent of the market in Georgia. Starting April 1, the import, export and sale of any kind of polyethylene bags will be banned; only biodegradable alternatives will be allowed. Violators will be subject to fines starting at 500 lari ($190).
The ban came, at least partly, as a result of Georgia’s commitments under a free-trade and association agreement with the European Union. Under the terms of the deal, Europe and Georgia share their markets duty-free, but Georgia also has to copy regulations from the EU, which plans to drastically reduce plastic bag use by next year.
Environmentalists hailed the ban, but it sparked grumbles from customers and producers. “I swear this government’s single goal is to make people’s life harder,” growled an elderly woman at a convenience store in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district, when the shopkeeper refused to provide a plastic bag for her groceries.
“Inevitably, we and other producers of cellophane are going to pay the price,” plastic bag producer Malkhaz Nemsadze told Batumelebi newspaper last month. “We will have to invest in purchasing new equipment to produce biodegradable bags. It will push up the price and push down the sales.”