Can Armenia Be the First to Ban Single-Use Plastic in a Throwaway Global Economy?

Officials aren't aiming for a wonky, old plastic bag ban; they're going the whole nine yards in trying to eliminate all single-use plastics in Armenia.

It has been a slate of good news from Armenia as of late. Topping off several weeks of corruption investigations, which have ousted numerous officials and relatives of the former president (bringing much-needed justice to the social landscape of the country), it was recently announced that Armenia’s natural landscapes also stand to gain from the new government’s direction. In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Armenia’s Nature Protection Minister, Erik Grigoryan, announced that the government would be pushing for an eventual ban of all single-use plastics in Armenia.

Photo: Hetq.am

Grigoryan explained that the process would not happen all at once; its implementation would begin in a single community and expand regionally, until the entire country was on board. He also noted that an alternative to plastic would be promoted, potentially pouches made of textile, “and the plastic bottles will be processed.” Furthermore, this new project would not infringe on the already rather tight state budget, assured Grigoryan, announcing that there is already a funding source in place.

“In many countries of the world the process has long been started,” Grigoryan said, painting a picture of a world that seems well on its way to sustainability. In his statements to journalists, he even predicted that in the next five to ten years, plastic would be forbidden (an optimistic and unlikely speculation, though not entirely disprovable).

But while Grigoryan’s optimistic projections make this environmentally-conscious author feel all warm and fuzzy inside, that may be just about all they do. After the briefing, Armenian press–like a bad game of “operator”–was soon flooded with interpretations of Grigoryan’s statement, all of which stated in one form or another: “Single-use plastic is already banned in many countries, and Armenia will soon be one of them.”

The truth is, in the race to sustainability, Armenia’s not all that far behind. The situation worldwide is extremely grim. We can only hope that Minister Grigoryan has taken the dismal realities of our global economics, which ride nearly entirely on single-use waste streams, into account. It’s important to mention here that most plastics are a derivative of fossil fuels, or oil–an industry which is as mighty as it is controversial. Here in the U.S., for example, part of the reason so many cities experience such difficulty in banning any form of plastic is because the people lobbying in favor of plastic are backed by giants like ExxonMobil and Dow, whose financial interests all depend on we the people continuing and even deepening our reliance on plastic (even if it kills us). So as much as this author wants to be wrong, given the current status quo, it would be blithely ignorant to bet on major countries like the United States and Russia getting their acts together in just five or ten years.

In short, optimism is a good thing; but the line between optimism and naivety is an exceedingly fine one. And if the economic logistics of your plan to eliminate single-use waste streams in Armenia depend upon the absolute best case scenario unfolding, then you are treading that line in a very dangerous way.

Perhaps, when citing the worldwide war on plastic, what Minister Grigoryan was really referring to were the numerous bans on plastic items that have popped up in various cities and countries globally. Kenya is the most dramatic example of this, where anyone who uses a plastic bag risks a $38,000 fine (though it’s worth mentioning the stiff measures have had impressive results in just a short period of time). In 2017, the city of Seattle enacted a ban on plastic straws and utensils. There are numerous other examples, just within the U.S. alone.

Yet it’s growing increasingly clear that this item-by-item, city-by-city approach is part of the problem. These small and—when pared with the environmental damage plastic causes each day—relatively insignificant victories might actually be distracting us from the fact that we are losing a much larger, more important war.

“It’s going to take more than a smattering of bans on single items to cure society of its disposable-plastic habit,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board last February. “The sheer volume of plastic trash now littering Earth has become impossible to ignore. It’s time for environmentalists, policymakers and elected officials to start planning a broader response: phasing out all single-use plastic, not just the most pernicious.”

So that’s what makes the recent announcement from Minister Grigoryan all the more titillating. He hasn’t announced yet another wonky, old plastic bag ban; he announced the termination of single-use plastics in Armenia altogether. That isn’t just good news; that’s great news.

But while the announcement seems headed in the right direction for the country (Armenia lacks a single modern, sanitary landfill to house the new influx of plastic that has accompanied its transition into a free market–though as we reported in January, one is slated to be built in the coming years), many questions are still left unanswered. One look at the madzoon [yogurt] aisle of any grocery store, stocked with single serving containers, offers a grim glimpse into the economic hurdles this government will soon face, if eliminating single-use plastic really is its goal.

And if officials were to somehow, miraculously, manage to implement a ban on all single-use plastic in the next few years, it would be a lonely celebration party, for Armenia would be the first and only country to do so in modern history. (Though it should be noted, it’s looking likely that Rwanda will get there first, with reports of public shaming and even jail time for those daring to use plastic bags).

In short, optimism is a great thing; but the line between optimism and naivety is an exceedingly fine one. And if the economic logistics of your plan to eliminate single-use waste streams in Armenia depend upon the absolute best case scenario unfolding (i.e. the rest of the world will definitely ban plastic in five years–woohoo!), then you are treading that line in a very dangerous way.

So, as the age-old slogan of cynics goes: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” This should be the modus operandi for our environmental policy-makers. For while it’s important to remain optimistic—as optimism does wonders for staying motivated in light of our modern blunders—a healthy dose of skepticism is required to keeps goal realistic, for we do, after all, want to reach them.

 

Editor’s Note: Small changes were made to this article after publishing, in the paragraph citing examples of plastic bans in Kenya and Seattle. The meaning of the article was not changed, but links were provided to substantiate the author’s claims.

Karine Vann

Karine Vann

Editor
Karine Vann is acting editor of the Armenian Weekly. She is a musician who transitioned into journalism while living in the Caucasus for several years. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian.com, The New Food Economy, and a number of other publications. Her critical writings focus primarily on the politics of culture, media analyses, and the environment. She spends her spare time in front of a keyboard, at a farm, or making a fuss about zero waste. If you have comments, questions, pitches, or leads, she can be reached at karine@armenianweekly.com.
Karine Vann

@karinevann

Editor at @ArmenianWeekly newspaper. Journalist. #ZeroWaste advocate. All views my own.
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