Plastic Bags: Conservation as a Way of Life
by Susan Cornnell
When I was little, I used to love to collect things - kid's stuff - like seashells, rock samples and dolls from foreign countries. When I grew older, I collected matches from exclusive restaurants and coins from foreign countries. Now that I'm living in Baku, I collect what they call in Russian-"pah-KETS"-plastic bags. That's right, plastic bags!
You see, they're an essential part of daily life here. One never goes out without them. Here they're washed, reused, recycled, repaired and even returned when loaned.
When you go to the bazaar, for example, it's extremely rare to be offered bags free with your purchases. Most people bring along their own, neatly folded and tucked away in purse or pocket. Myself, I carry a big woven straw bag to hold all of my purchases, along with separate smaller plastic bags for vegetables, Ziploc bags for eggs and a paper bag for bread (which would melt plastic, since it comes steaming hot from the oven).
Simply, there's a total lack of packaging of goods. No boxes, no plastic wrap, no Styrofoam, no egg cartons, no plastic tubs of butter and very few cans. That's why the plastic bags are so important.
Left: In the early 1990s, it was common for Azerbaijanis to reuse plastic bags rather than throw them away. The most popular bags were the ones from foreign oil companies and cigarette companies. Here an assortment of bags has been washed and hung up to dry, 1994.
At the bazaar, newspaper cones are used to "package" everything from vegetables to dried fruits, nuts and beans. Fresh yogurt is sold in recycled tomato paste jars; vinegar, in recycled vodka bottles. Meat has no packaging at all; it simply hangs on a hook.
So plastic bags are constantly in use. You wash them out, hang them up to dry and later sort them according to size and function. You see, not all bags are created equal. The bags with sturdy handles are prized the most, since people here do so much walking. Bags with colorful designs (usually foreign) are considered the most chic, the omnipresent "Marlboro bags" are the cheapest.
When I first came to Azerbaijan, I brought my own collection of bags. My Ziplocs nearly caused a fight in the bazaar when I presented one to a little old lady pickle vendor. And I'll never forget the time I placed a week's worth of trash outside my door in a heavy-duty drawstring garbage bag. A neighbor came by and shyly asked if he might take my garbage to the dumpster, empty the bag and keep it for himself. More recently, at the International Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition this past May, one of the oil companies gave out free canvas bags. Their popularity nearly caused a riot.
The habit of recycling doesn't need to be discovered in Baku. It's already part of the cultural mentality to save, reuse and restore. For instance, there are hundreds of cobblers in the capital city and dozens of tailors, even though it seems like everybody - both male and female - can repair everything from zippers to light fixtures.
Careful Use of Paper
It's an unwritten rule that both sides of a piece of paper are always used. It's not that there's a paper shortage. There are at least a dozen state stores that seem to have an endless supply of low-quality paper and notebooks, which they sell practically for free. Nonetheless, students always use the same five-cent notebooks semester after semester, covering every inch of space on both sides.
As a native speaker of English, I often lend a hand in editing English-language radio programs and magazines. Invariably, with every text I edit, the paper has already been used on the other side.
Photocopies are still a curiosity. When we first got a copier for our office, my co-worker Lala was amazed to see her first copy. "It's a miracle," she marveled. I've since discovered that instructors have the tendency to write something on a piece of paper, tack it to the wall and then have their students copy it by hand. Perhaps this method is not so efficient, but it saves electricity and money (not to mention copier machine parts, which are still impossible to obtain).
I've even become obsessed with what to do with my already-chewed gum. A package of Post-it notes lasts me a year. English-language newspapers are passed from friend to friend until they are eventually used to wrap presents and parcels.
Water - Everybody's Headache
But let me talk about some of the serious shortages in Baku - in particular, water. Out of necessity, water conservation is a major part of life here for almost everyone. Most apartments, even those belonging to the "rich and famous", experience water shortages. The first question you ask when renting a flat is, "How's the water?" Having a storage tank in the ceiling of the bathroom is the norm if you want to have water on a regular basis. We have one in our flat - it's a three-by-three foot rust-encrusted behemoth with a device for heating gas that's so deadly I've only managed to get up enough nerve to light it twice during my two years here. That means I take showers at friends' homes or at the public "banya" (bathhouse).
Water flows only a few hours a day at our place. Of course, wouldn't you know, that rarely happens when we're at home. We still prefer to collect water in our bathtub and not the storage tank. In turn, it becomes our source of water for washing our hands, washing dishes and clothes and flushing the toilet.
You may wonder how we do the laundry. Well, there are no laundromats in Baku. We've heard rumors that a dry cleaner has opened, but we're still looking for it. About one-third of the flats have small washing machines, but none have dryers (with the exception of foreigners' flats). As for ourselves, we have neither. My roommate, Sadagat, uses the water stored in the bathtub and boils her clothes on the stove. Then she hangs them up to dry in the kitchen or on the balcony or clothesline. On occasion, she even lays them out on the grass to dry in the yard.
Electricity is usually available. Apartments are generally heated by forced hot water radiators, but since they aren't very effective, many people add small electric heaters. So, apart from ceiling lights and the TV, there is very little use for electricity. Kitchen appliances such as electric can openers, food processors and hand mixers are rare. Elaborate home entertainment systems are just now beginning to be sold in the kommissyons. Personal computers belong to the age of the future for most families.
When the power goes off, you simply light a few candles. This past January, when we read about the earthquake in California and the difficulties Angelinos had in trying to cope without power and water, we felt smug. "No problem for us, we're used to it."
Despite the prevalence of concepts like recycling and conservation, when it comes to the state-owned telephone and gas utilities, Azerbaijanis have a different mentality. Up until just recently, these were virtually free, so Azerbaijanis felt free to use these resources prodigally. People still talk on the phone for hours, even though local phone service costs about 120 manats per month (U.S. $0.12), five times as much as it did a month ago. But international calls are incredibly expensive. At this writing, calls were about $3 per minute to the United States (prohibitively expensive, considering that a college professor makes less than $10 per month).
Gas is the one utility that Azerbaijanis pin their hopes on. Even if it barely emits a trace, it works. Summer or winter, it's very typical for people to leave at least one gas burner lit. Sometimes they let it burn simply because they don't have a match to relight it. Besides, they never know when someone might stop in for tea, so the "chainik" (tea kettle) is always ready for service. When it's cold outside, a metal disk is placed on top of the burner. Supposedly this helps warm the flat (although, in truth, only the area adjacent to the stove gets warm).
Despite these few areas of indulgence, saving and collecting nearly everything is not just a way of life, it's a hobby. Just check out my roommate's cabinets. She keeps every scrap of paper, every ribbon, every empty jam jar-"just in case". I asked her why she is so obsessed with hoarding everything, thinking that perhaps it was just her peculiar idiosyncrasy. She told me that for many years, there was nothing available from the "outside world", so people became intrigued with foreign things.
Small things hold great value in this society - an idea that is remote from the mentality of the "disposable" society in which I grew up. Once, after a tea party at our flat, I discovered my friends washing the paper plates and refolding the paper napkins. I laughed and tried to explain that those things were disposable - that they were intended to be used only once. But my friends continued to persist, saying, "Why?"
I come from a materially oriented society in which people collect things just to have them. It's not that I needed them or even cared about them; it was just part of my culture to possess, consume and then, of course, discard.
Spirit of Generosity
I've learned a lot about conservation and recycling from my Azerbaijani friends. I've learned how to get the most use out of something as simple as a plastic bag. I've learned to appreciate the things that I have, but more importantly, I've learned to share. You see, despite a cultural mentality that cautions, "Save it for a rainy day," the Azerbaijanis are extremely generous people. They love to share whatever they have, even if it's just a symbol of their friendship. They would never think of visiting someone's home, for example, without bringing a gift for the hostess. Even when we visit refugees who have been reduced to living in tents, invariably they offer something - sometimes a handful of candies that they have been saving to honor special guests.
Living in Azerbaijan is teaching me that giving is truly greater than receiving. Even the simple little key ring I bought at Disney World is now a treasured gift - along with the wrapping paper and ribbon in which I presented it. And so it is that living in Azerbaijan is causing me to be selective about my purchases - to really value things before buying them. I'm also learning to value them even more - by giving them away.
In 1994 Susan Cornnell had been
living in Baku for two years. She still lives and works in Baku