The much-derided plastic bag still gets loving treatment from some Russians

22 April 2019

Beaches that look like landfill sites. Fish stuck in a net of debris. Birds feeding polystyrene to their young. This is the bleak reality of where our plastics end up. A quick Google search will bring up more stock photos of plastic flotsam than you thought imaginable, and yet an Instagram post of an albatross with its stomachs full of plastic will always send a chill down my spine.

During the USSR, plastic bags were never garbage: they were a luxury

These kinds of photos have triggered a worldwide revolt against plastics that is only picking up pace. Last month, the European parliament voted to ban single-use plastics by 2021. All of a sudden you can’t buy a five pence plastic bag from your local supermarket without being hit by a wave of guilt. Plastic bags are now deeply uncool, rightfully considered something shameful. I imagine classrooms of the future where kids are taught to just say no — to disposable packaging.

While plastic bags are public enemy number one in the West, their reputation in Eastern Europe just might surprise you. During the USSR, plastic bags were never garbage: they were a luxury. Instead of wrapping paper, it was more thoughtful to give a present in the original plastic bag it came in.

This photo, taken by Anton Andrienko, of an assortment of plastic bags lovingly hung up to dry in a Moscow neighbourhood, is a homage to a Soviet pastime, when plastic was scarce and bags like this were treasured, washed, and reused. The Soviet Union may not have been a beacon of eco-consciousness, but having to be resourceful came with the territory.

“There are still people who keep and reuse plastic bags. It’s become a tell-tale sign of someone who lived through the USSR, when plastic bags were hard to come by so they were washed and reused,” Andrienko, who is a student at The Rodchenko Art School, explains.

Mention plastic bags to someone who grew up in Moscow or Tbilisi, and they will probably tell you the same story. One of The Calvert Journal’s editors takes plastic bags from the UK for her family on trips back to St Petersburg, and I’ve had friends bring back flamboyant plastic bags with Burberry, Gucci, and Prada logos (fakes in Eastern European were always plastic) from Kyiv as souvenirs.

For Andrienko, this is an ordinary sight. What made him take the shot was the fact the neighbourhood had just been refurbished. “The washing lines are new and purpose built, but that hasn’t changed the locals’ habits,” says the photographer, drawn to the juxtaposition of old and new. This may not be a typical poster image for recycling; one could even read it as a sign of our ongoing obsession with plastic. I was struck, instead, by the care that must go into washing and drying each beloved bag.

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