One day as I was travelling from Ivano-Frankivsk to the village where my parents live in the far east of Ukraine I came upon a disturbing site: a mountain of garbage surrounded by a sea of plastic bags dispersed by the wind and moving like waves across the landscape. I was shocked at the scene of how my beautiful country was being desecrated and polluted with discarded plastic bags. At that moment, I decided this couldn’t be allowed to continue. Something needed to be done.
When I returned home, I shared the experience with my wife, and together we decided to use as little plastic as possible. How? By replacing plastic bags with paper ones and taking them whenever they go shopping. And not only for our own use, but also for other shoppers. I bought several thousands of such bags, and every time I went to a supermarket, I distributed several hundred to other customers. Some people accepted them and thanked, while others wondered and asked why I was doing that.
“How come that you are handing something out for free, at your own expense,” they often asked me — to which my response was simply: “Well, I saw a problem, I sought a solution — and this is what I’ve come up with.”
From action to NGO
It’s one thing to hand out paper bags at your regular store where people already know you. But I felt that was not enough. We had to come up with something that would encourage more people to give up polyethylene plastic bags. More than 100 million tonnes of polyethylene are produced in the world each year and they can take up to 20 years to decompose once discarded. I thought to myself that if something was not done soon, my entire country could some day be buried in them.
This is how the #No_to bags campaign evolved. I shared my idea with friends and colleagues, contacted various organizations and invited them to join. We organized a small fair. Well, I thought it would be small. In fact, it turned out to be massive — the response was overwhelming. I could see I was not the only one who perceived plastic as a problem.
On day several friends joined me in the central square of Frankivsk to set up several stalls where we showed people that there are alternatives to plastic bags such as eco-bags, fabric bags, string bags. The sale was a huge success and we sold most of the reusable bags I had purchased. In fact, we even made a profit, which I donated to a local orphanage.
We realized that one person does not make a team, and that several teams can become a movement and do something on a larger scale for the future. Requests for local support and action started reaching us from across the country. For this reason, we created an NGO we called “Creating the Future” to serve as a common catalyst for country-wide action to support a shift away from our heavy reliance on plastic.
While local action and such a community movement were important to wean the country from its addiction to “baggies,” we became really encouraged when the national government drafted and introduced the new draft law 2051–1 on restricting the use of plastic bags in Ukraine, which has already been approved in the first reading. If it becomes law, there will be a total ban on the production and distribution of so-called plastic bags in supermarkets, shops and restaurants as of 1 January 2022. As an alternative, the new law will encourage the use of biodegradable products.
Practicing what we preach
Our society may have gotten too used to the ease of plastic bags. Living without them requires a small lifestyle change. It definitely helped that my family was supportive, and we were able to test new approaches together. We also educated our little daughter who is only two years old. She already knows that if there is rubbish somewhere on the street, it should be picked up and placed in the bin. My wife and I know that our children will be tomorrow’s stewards of our environment and that if they grow up with this awareness, we will have a better chance avoiding scenarios like the one I saw with garbage covering the country.
We launched many new eco-practices at home and have been sticking to them for a year now. All waste sorted into recycling. There are individual containers for solid waste, moist waste, and plastic bottles. We go shopping only with paper bags. You can easily put cereals or sugar into them as they are at least three kilograms strong. Just place one inside the other. For meat or fish, we take reusable containers to the market or supermarket.
I took heart that on International Plastic Bag Free Day supported by the United Nations Development Programme, hundreds of stores, cafes, pharmacies, educational institutions, and fast-food restaurants abandoned plastic. Instead of plastic bags, customers were offered paper or fabric ones on that day. Polyethylene gloves were replaced with serving tongs. And those who brought their own reusable containers for food and beverages got a discount.
But I would like to remind my friends and compatriots that one action is not enough. We need to be constantly reminded to celebrate Plastic Bags Free Day every day.
A Ukraine-wide campaign called “A Day Without Polyethylene” was held in June-July 2019 to mark International Plastic Bag-Free Day. The campaign was organized by the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine, jointly with the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine, the Green Energy of Changes Inter-factional MP Association, and Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine. More than 100 stores, supermarkets, cafes, pharmacies, educational institutions, fast food restaurants and other companies have joined the initiative to abandon the use of plastic per day by replacing it with more environmentally friendly alternatives.
This story is a part of a communication campaign about environmental changemakers, which became possible thanks to the UNDP project “Support to the Parliament of Ukraine on sustainable energy and environment” with the financial support of Sweden and UNDP project “Plastic Waste Management at the local level” with the financial support of the joint New World Programme of the Coca-Cola Foundation and Global Water Challenge.
By Yuliya Hudoshnyk, based on the conversation with Nazar Lavitskyi