POLYTHENE PEST

by Anthony Georgieff; photography by Nelly Tomova

The government drags its feet on getting rid of Bulgaria's omnipresent plastic bags

plastic bags bulgaria.jpg

One of the most disgusting peculiarities of life in Bulgaria is the ubiquitous polythene bag referred to by locals as potnik, or undershirt (because it is very thin and has two characteristic carrier strings, just like a potnik). You see these bags everywhere in Bulgaria, as vendors sell you anything from bread and banichki to ground coffee and raw meat in these cheap little bags. They are generously doled out by chemists, sock-sellers, food stalls in the market and bookshops, even though getting warm banichki or raw meat in one of them is a horribly messy business. If you do some serious shopping you can easily end up with 20 or 30 of these plastic bags when you bring home your goods. There is only one option to get rid of the little buggers. In a country where separating your rubbish is still novel, and not very popular idea, you just throw the plastic bags into your bin.

The result is evident in every Bulgarian park, street or nature reserve: dozens of decomposition-resistant polythene bags hanging from tree branches and bushes or just being blown around in the wind. The polythene bag is a disaster for the environment. They take years to decompose and are a serious litter problem, especially along roads and railway lines. In addition to being a nuisance and visually offensive, they are actually dangerous to a variety of animals, especially fish.

Some manufacturers of polythene bags claim that their wares are "biodegradable," but in reality they are not. In time they just disintegrate into pieces, making their detection harder and presenting even further risks to the environment.

Last year the government seemed to be taking an interest in what in Bulgaria is a significant environmental issue when it decided to impose a special tax of 0.15 leva per bag. This tax was to be paid by vendors who currently give away such bags for free. It was to be increased over the next several years, reaching 0.55 leva per bag. In practice, this would have made polythene bags prohibitively expensive.

According to Ministry of the Environment estimates, over 1.5 billion polythene bags are used by Bulgarian households every year. Predictably, both manufacturers and vendors of polythene bags lobbied against the planned tax. Citing economic reasons, they succeeded in persuading the government to postpone the planned introduction of the environmental tax until the autumn. It is unclear whether there will be another postponement but it is likely, as the Bulgarian population becomes increasingly impoverished as a result of the government's inability to tackle the economic crisis.

In the meantime, shoppers in Bulgaria will be given no alternative to the ubiquitous plastic bag. The nearest option of getting some fresh bread in a proper paper bag remains Greece...

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