A Restaurant-Owner in Yerevan Considers the Ban on Plastic

Will the burden of transition fall on the backs of those who have been struggling all along?

One evening, as I was walking through the streets of Cascade, I noticed a sudden shutdown of all service businesses at exactly 11:00 p.m. I asked the owner of a popular pub in the area why they were rushing the shutdown so quickly, and he said it was to appease the demands of neighbors of Cascade who complained of the noise… in downtown Yerevan… in one of the most touristic areas. It didn’t make sense to me.

These are prime business hours for these cafés and pubs. Now they have no choice but to shut down because neighbors in the area want peace and quiet in the middle of the city. How can tourism, and the businesses that require it to survive, thrive in this kind of environment?

Fast-forward to the news of the plastics ban. A few weeks ago, officials at the Ministry of Nature Protection made an announcement: In the next several years, they hope to ban all single-use plastic in the country. Many were ecstatic at the news, including my husband and I. However the actual details were scarce. In the news coverage of the ban, little mention was put forward as to how they foresee the implementation of this policy (outside of the Minister’s vague statements that the program would “start in a small community and expand outwards”).

My husband and I are small business-owners, who run a restaurant in Yerevan called Adzoukh. Our business model depends on single-use waste streams for its subsistence and affordability. We are also concerned environmentalists, who would love to be the ones implementing the environmental friendly changes that the government is planning. But in order for that to be the case, it’s critical that realistic solutions be introduced. We small business owners in the food industry face many challenges, and only by bearing these challenges in mind, can the government develop policies that will ensure economic growth.

The question remains: Will small businesses sustainable in this new plastic-free market, or will the burden of transition fall on the backs of those who have been struggling all along?

Important to consider are the recently introduced new food-related regulations, which have had some negative consequences. Since July 1, 2018, a new tax code introduced by the previous government (ՀՕ-266-Ն 21.12.17թ․) requires restaurants to pay tax on their gross profit as opposed to the previous law that required taxation on the square-meter space of the service area. They are also required to show invoices from all their vendors to prove expenses, which has limited the sales of produce and meat to those who can provide such invoices. This new regulation is hitting farmers the hardest. Gumi Shuka, a beloved local farmers market, has no orders from restaurants to fulfill. As a result, costs have increased, as the suppliers that are able to provide invoices naturally have higher prices.

From the perspective of a restaurant owner, this is one of the many new blows to our bottom line. In fact, based on my conversations with colleagues and fellow business-owners, there is a consensus among owners of other popular restaurants and pubs that the city is growing increasingly hostile to small businesses and is, instead, creating strict policies that cut down their potential to compete with the bigger businesses in town.

When my husband and I met with packaging suppliers before opening our doors to the public in March, the presentation of plastics already disturbed me. But this was the best option available that wouldn’t break our bank, and the only durable solution to proper delivery packaging. In order to keep our prices low and competitive (and thus, affordable to the masses), we were forced to go plastic (though I’ve already been pushing to get rid of straws all together, and that is honestly something we can and probably will do soon).

But the real hurdle is this: Like many restaurant owners, a big part of our business model depends on delivery services. Take-out requires packaging. It is hard to imagine how we’ll be able to package our food for delivery without some realistic alternatives.

Photo: Arsineh Valladian 

So what are some of those potential alternatives? When it comes to beverages, most restaurants offer Pepsi or Coca Cola products, clearly with the plastic bottles. It seems that part of the plan is to include some of the larger soda manufacturers to take part in a recycling program that would return to a system where you would get change back for returning the bottle. And honestly, bottles can probably be replaced with cans or glass. It wasn’t too long ago that returning a glass bottle to a restaurant was the norm.

As for straws, there is always concern of what the disabled would do without straws, or young children. However I find these concerns to be the easiest to solve with reusable straws, either available within the restaurant, or something people keep on hand if they need. This alone should not be a reason for restaurants to feel obligated to provide single-use plastic straws.

But again, when it comes to delivery, things get a little complicated. This is where I hope the Ministry will consider providing support to the suppliers who produce the plastics. Perhaps it’s time to give tax relief or benefits to companies who produce eco-friendly products while highly taxing those who produce plastics. That will allow them to produce affordable products that allow businesses like us to make the smarter choice.

Right now, the only way to keep our prices low would be to sacrifice on the quality of meat. We refuse to do that, but many big businesses already do.

In speaking with the owner of a food packaging manufacturing company, I discovered that he makes biodegradable plastic available in the market for almost the same price as regular plastic. He described it as a plastic that turns to dust after several months. The trick is in the additives used to create the plastic. It could be feasible to do such a thing if the government created initiatives for businesses to switch to this process. If it makes more sense to import eco-friendly packaging, then perhaps this option also should be considered with customs-free importing to keep costs low as well. This is not a perfect solution as the goal should be reducing waste, not replacing it, but at least it’s a step in a better direction.

Then, there’s always the question: why not just raise prices since everyone will have to do the same? I’m not sure people are aware of how thin the power of purchase in Armenia really is. This would have an impact on the market that I doubt Armenia will be able to endure. Watching our sales go up and down over the years at the difference of 100 dram proves to us that every dram counts to the consumer. We do not have the means to absorb the blow of price inflation. Right now, the only way to keep our prices low would be to sacrifice on the quality of meat. We refuse to do that, but many big businesses already do.

I’m aware that the plastic ban process is in its pilot phase and it will be a while before this policy affects our business. However, as it’s something I would like to see, I’m hoping that these ideas will be considered and that the process will include consideration of alternatives that won’t force us to raise our prices any more. Yerevan may be affordable to the tourist, but for locals, who expect our prices to reflect their wages, raising food prices by even 100 AMD can have a deleterious effect, and our business cannot sustain itself without the local market—nor should it have to.

Arsineh Valladian

Arsineh Valladian

Arsineh has been living in Armenia on and off since 2001 and has worked on marketing and branding for many clients locally and globally. She currently does all the marketing for Adzoukh restaurant in Yerevan, her husband’s latest venture with his friend and business partner.

2 Comments

  1. The fact that a plastic “turns to dust” over time does not make it biodegradable. You might just end with up extremely small particles of the same plastic persisting in the environment, making it much more insidious. The effects might be akin to what broken up plastic is doing to oceanic life forms (fish, mammals, and birds).

    I agree and empathize with you. Keep up the struggle. If I encounter anything useful, I’ll find a way of reaching you.

  2. Garin jan, I agree 100%, it’s just a step in that direction, but not a solution. My issue is that even paper packaging requires plastic coating for hot and cold food. And the most biodegradable option available right now is outrageously expensive. If that option is made affordable somehow, by all means, bring it on! Otherwise, I’d love to see alternative methods introduced to the market so we can make this change without shutting our doors.

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