Plastic Bags and the New American Dream

Every time we make a trip to the grocery store or farmer's market to buy the ingredients for our next meal, we have a choice: bring our own bags or use paper or plastic. I hope you'll forgive this purely op-ed post - it has no pictures, it's a bit long, and there's no feel-good ending - but this is a topic that I feel particularly passionate about.

When I went back to Bulgaria for the holidays about six or seven years ago (maybe more, I don't quite recall), I was surprised to find that most produce merchants, both in the outdoor markets and in small local grocery shops, had begun to offer plastic bags. Up until that point, customers were expected to bring their own reusable bags, and as a child, I vividly recall pouring fresh cherries, apples, and strawberries into my grandmother's expandable mesh totes - she always carried a few spares rolled up in her purse for unexpected shopping trips. Bulgarians were very eco-friendly in that regard, without even trying to be, because plastic bags simply weren't available in the country until fairly recently. 

Now, things have changed. Take a drive out of Sofia and you'll see open fields covered in little floating plastic baggies. The problem isn't with Bulgaria's recycling program - and I'm not certain if plastic bags are actually even recyclable there at this time - but with the "nouveau riche" mentality of many post-1991 Bulgarians, including my own beloved grandmother. When I first noticed the bags in Sofia, I asked my grandmother why she doesn't use her own mesh totes anymore, and she simply responded: "Why would I want to? The plastic bags are so convenient." 

I remember her reply word-for-word because I realized at that moment that these bags - as with so many other modern conveniences recently introduced in Bulgaria, such as take-out styrofoam containers and to-go coffee cups - are perceived as a luxury, as an indication that Bulgaria is progressing economically and that Bulgarians are now able to afford and enjoy something akin to the American lifestyle. The bags were more than just a convenience, they were a mark of pride. Fortunately, things are looking up in BG now. This article (which is in Bulgarian - my apologies) describes the country's new "eco-tax" on the thinnest kind of plastic bags, which went into effect on October 1: grocers are now required to charge at least 15 "stotinki" (Bulgarian cents) for each bag that a customer uses, while manufacturers are required to pay 15 stotinki for each bag that they provide to grocers. The tax is only a tiny step in the right direction, but it is still a step. 

The irony is that, in trying to live the modern Western lifestyle (be it American or European), Bulgarians are falling light years behind; it's time to recognize that modern America is gradually becoming less concerned with "conveniences" and more concerned with supporting sustainable practices. Of course, we still consume more resources per capita than any other nation in the world, but in many cities, it is no longer "cool" to revel in the convenience of disposables. The old American Dream - with its white picket fence, two-car garage and gleaming green lawn - is on life support; the new American Dream, whether for purely economic or environmental concerns (or a mixture of both) is all about being smart with your money, using less, and trying to leave a less-bad world for future generations. Come on Bulgaria, step into the 21st century.

Yours truly, one bite at a time,



Милена Фучеджиева said...

very smart and well written! conratulations, radina!!!

Radina Valova said...


lawprof said...

Very interesting. Convenience trumps relatively painless conservation practices. If Bulgaria continues on this reactionary path we must commit our armed forces to bring about an Eco-friendly regime. As usual, Radina, beautiful writing and insightful comments.

Radina Valova said...

Thanks, Ralph! And of course America must police the world's environmental problems. Naturally. :)

Anita said...
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