The Legacy of Plastic Bags in Post-Soviet Society

The topic of plastic has been 'trending' in mainstream media and in day-to-day conversation. It is more common now to see images of animals, especially marine life, dying because of their unknowing consumption of plastics.  

This photo shows plastic bags removed from a pilot whale that was floating off the shores of Thailand. Upon being rescued, the whale began vomiting pieces of plastic and died soon after. There were 80 plastic bags weighing more than 17 lbs inside its stomach. 

Plastic bags removed from a pilot whale's stomach. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine

Plastic bags removed from a pilot whale's stomach. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine

So how does this and the Soviet Union come together? Bare with me... we're getting there.

Let's go back to 1965. A Swedish company by the name of Celloplast obtained a U.S. patent for the idea of what would later be known as the "T-shirt plastic bag" and thus, the plastic bag that we use today was born.

The "T-shirt plastic bag" design filed at the U.S. patent office

The "T-shirt plastic bag" design filed at the U.S. patent office

Though these bags were introduced, initially, the public didn't buy in to the idea, and for many years, still preferred paper bags for their groceries. This changed in 1985 when Robert Bauman of Chem Systems announced at the New Materials and Profits in Grocery Sacks and Conextrusions Conference, that plastic bags were 11.5% cheaper than paper bags (Vince Staten, Can you Trust a Tomato in January). Staten adds that according to Plastics World magazine, "plastic bags were in only 10 percent of the supermarkets in 1983. By the end of 1985 that had leaped to 75 percent."

1985 was significant as well in the Soviet Union. This is the year that Mikhail Gorbachev took office as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union. With it, he brought glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), which also meant that the Soviet Union's borders were more open to foreign tourists. According to a Los Angeles Times article, Gorbachev Sparks New interest: More Americans visiting Soviet Union This Year published on July 18, 1987, the Soviet Union "expected a record number of foreign tourists in 1987."

As plastic bag usage began to grow in the United States, the Soviet Union kept on with its use of reusable bags. The net bags seen above were very popular and durable. In the Soviet Union, and even in post-Soviet society, reusing bags, or taking in glass bottles for payment was very common. Yet plastic bags were intriguing, as were most things American. 

My mother grew up in Soviet Armenia and lived for many years in Soviet Estonia. As a student in grammar school, she recalls her staunch communist teacher speaking to the class about how Americans had invented the plastic bag, and saying "Who cares! We've invented more important things!"

Yet, anti-American speeches didn't do much to keep people away from American-made items. She also recalls that when family from the States would visit, they would bring gifts in plastic bags. They would treasure these bags, as they would treasure anything American, and would walk around town with pride that they were carrying a plastic bag. They would gently wash and iron these bags so that they would look brand new for their next parade around town. This held true in Estonia as well. 

With the borders now more open, and with plastic bags more available to Americans, Soviet families began to become more accustomed to them, and viewed them as a sign of wealth, because America equaled wealth. 

Photo: Sergei Zhukov, Anatoly Semenikhin/TASS

Photo: Sergei Zhukov, Anatoly Semenikhin/TASS

I was recently speaking with a zero-waste enthusiast friend of mine who was visiting Armenia, about her frustration with plastic waste around Yerevan. One of the easiest ways someone can reduce plastic waste is by carrying their own reusable shopping bag. Even as she traveled, she took her reusable bag with her. Many times, she got confused stares from fellow shoppers, and someone even said that by bringing in a reusable bag you create an image of being cheap.

This mindset that plastic bags are grander because they're American or European, and not Soviet, has stuck, but hopefully this will change. Foreign tourists unknowingly made plastic bags popular in the Soviet Union, so I have confidence that today's sustainable minded tourists can create change again - this time, away from plastics.  


I was fortunate enough to have been able to travel to Armenia for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Within the eight days there, I traveled around as much as possible. If you'd oblige, I'd like to take you through a journey of Armenian history by showing you some of the sites I visited this time around. Throughout, I'll be adding small historical facts about the sites, and I hope this will spark an interest for you to learn more, and eventually, to see Armenia in person. 

For the first post, I thought it would be fitting to begin with Erebuni. 

Erebuni was constructed in 782 BC by Urartu King, Argishti the First. The settlement is atop Arin Fortress and today looks down upon the suburbs of Yerevan. Erebuni is considered the beginnings of Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. 

The settlement was divided into three sections: religious, economic and royal.

The next two photos are of the Royal Hall. The blue and yellow/gold paint has remained intact since the time of Argishti. 

Inscriptions in Urartu cuneiform found at Erebuni are considered to be historical documents that depict Erebuni as the starting grounds of Yerevan. 

And I'll end this post with a photo of Erebuni looking down on its much younger sister, Yerevan.


The first time I traveled to Khndzoresk (Խնձորեսկ) was in 2007, and since then, every time I am in Armenia, I am pulled to travel there again. It is a magical place. For Lord of the Ring fans, it's like stepping into a real-life Rivendell.

Khndzoresk is located in southeast Armenia, about 160 miles from Armenia's capital, Yerevan, and normally takes five hours to get there. It's part of the Syunik province, on the slopes of Khor Dzor (Deep Gorge). 

Until the 1950's/1960's, villagers lived in cave dwellings depicted in the photos below. These dwellings, some of which are man-made caves, are intricate, consisting of separate rooms. There have also been underground tunnels found from one home to the next. These tunnels were used to warn of enemy attacks. In the mid-1900's, Soviet officials removed the remaining villagers still living in these caves, as they deemed it uncivilized. Some of these dwellings are still used today to house livestock.

The people of Khndzoresk, and Syunik in general, have been and are still known for their strength and courage. While Armenia adopted Christianity in 301AD, the people of Khndzoresk are believed to have remained Pagan until around the 1600's (still to be historically proven). Their location, which was difficult to get to, and their stubbornness is what has kept their traditions alive.

One Khndzoresk villager told me a story about how his grandmother would protect her home on horseback against the Turks.

Until 2012, getting to the cave dwellings was a hike through untamed trails. In 2012, a "swinging bridge" was constructed to allow for an easier and faster access, especially for the villagers of Khndzoresk. The bridge, seen below, bounces with your every step. the man, a villager from Khndzoresk, at the end of the bridge had been too afraid to walk through it, but said, "If crazy tourists from America can do this, I'm going to do it as well." Towards the end, he was running on the bridge like a little kid.

If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend you visiting Khndzoresk. Take the hike to the bridge and explore the dwellings. On your way back you'll be hungry enough to have some delicious khorovats (Armenian BBQ), or the endless healthy greens this place has to offer.

The Fall of an Empire - USSR

September 21, 1991 marks Armenia's Independence Day from the Soviet Union. Over 70 years under Soviet rule, it was unfathomable to see this "mighty" power fall. 

Independence did not only come to Armenia - other countries such as Estonia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Lithuania also gained independence. This power that helped bring down Hitler and the Nazi's, and kept the United States in fear of the concept of Communism, collapsed, unintentionally freeing its "subjects."

That's where my history lesson ends for the day... well, almost. The Soviet Union had two "Gods," Lenin and Stalin, and the worshiping of these two mortals was evident in the countries conquered - statues of Lenin and Stalin stood tall, looking down toward the people they ruled over. These compiled photos are so symbolic that I had to share them with you. As countries took on independence, they tore down the symbols that kept freedom from them.

One of my favorite political theorists, Thomas Paine, taught me in his writings, that the greatest force, stronger than any government is its people. The people not only outnumber members of government but also allow governments to exist. If the people do not believe in their government or style of government, it will eventually not exist. If the people want change, their government will have to oblige, or disappear.