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.  

The Glorious Machu Picchu

No words or photos will do this place much justice. After spending over eight hours walking and hiking the site, I wish I had at least another two hours to just sit and truly understand where I was. 

At the Sun Gate (Inti Punku)

In April, a group of my classmates and I decided to pay a visit to this ancient site of Machu Picchu prior to our fieldwork in the informal settlements (slums) of Lima, Peru. Here is a short journey of the trip.


Upon landing in Lima, we flew to the historic city of Cuzco (or Cusco/Qusco). The city was once the administrative and religious capital of the Inca Empire and is about 11,152 feet (3,450 meters) above sea level, and is higher than Machu Picchu.  


The city offers all the luxuries you'll want and more. You can shop for art, local made clothing (many made of alpaca wool), bags, jewelry, etc., and get massages for less than $15.

Some unique aspects of the city include its food and drink varieties, local to the area and the country. If you ever wanted to try alpaca meat, well, Cuzco is your place. Also, they have a really tasty drink called chicha which consists of purple corn, cinnamon and cloves (click here for the recipe). Also, don't forget to test out the famous Peruvian drink, pisco sour (here is the recipe), but keep in mind that your drunkenness levels are enhanced with high elevation.

From Cuzco, we took a short drive to catch the train that would take us to Aguas Calientes (the village/small town closest to Machu Picchu). On our way there, we made a quick stop at this spot... I mean, how can you not?

The beauty of Peru

And then... the train ride.

Inside the train on our way to Aguas Calientes

View from the train


Aguas Calientes (Spanish for 'hot waters' or 'hot springs'), also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, is a beautiful small town/village surrounded by mountains and rivers and a lush green landscape. It also has hot springs (fitting to its name) that you can enjoy, only a few minutes hike from the center of town. It is recommended to spend at least one night here (unless you're taking the Inca Trail path) prior to visiting Machu Picchu because people have become ill from not resting properly. 


Finally, it was time to head out to Machu Picchu. We wanted to be there as early as possible in order to see as much as we could, as we were only there for one day. We got to the site at 6 am and were greeted by fog and rain, which is common for the area.

By 11 am, the clouds lifted and let in the sunshine. 

The site stretches over 5 miles, with over 3000 stone steps throughout, and was constructed at the height of the Inca Empire (15th to 16th centuries). In 1993, it was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site and in 2007, it was designated as the New Seven Wonders of the World site.

The purpose of the structure has various theories, most of which agree that the elite lived there. Our tour guide explained it as such: the elite did live in Machu Picchu, but what they considered elite is not quite the way we may understand it. Being elite for the Incas was not about royalty or monetary wealth (in fact, they did not have money). Being elite meant contributing something for the betterment of the community. Once you were living in Machu Picchu did not mean that you and your family would stay there. If your offspring did not contribute, they would be sent down to live in the villages nearby. Pretty amazing, isn't it?

The site is also super sustainable. The Incas were an extremely sophisticated people and it is not by mistake that they built this structure in this area. They studied the area for its environmental benefits including the production of fog which allowed for the watering of crops as well as capturing drinking water. 

The empire thrived until the Spaniards invaded with their oh so lovely new diseases and lack of tolerance for non-Catholics. We can learn so much from the Incas and their ancestors! But for now, here are some more photos of Machu Picchu. 

I cannot wait to see this place again and other ancient sites that this magnificent country has to offer. 

Informal Dumpsite

For the past few months, I've been studying Environment and Sustainable Development at the University College London. Part of the program is to conduct field research in a developing country in the "Global South" and for the past four years, they've been researching in Lima, Peru. 

The two intense weeks spent in Lima, specifically in the informal settlement area of Chuquitanta was extremely eyeopening and humbling to say the least. Chuquitanta has a rich history, pre-dating the Incas by three thousand years. 

This post is not about our research, but if you'd like to learn more about it, here's a short YouTube clip of our findings and recommendations. 

This post however, is a photographic journey through one of the informal dumpsites in Chuquitanta.