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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Glasgow's Plastic Bags Get an Azeri Adventure

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YANAR DAG, Azerbaijan -- Plastic bags have a lot to answer for.

On Saturday, we took our house guests to the Absheron Peninsula, the beak-shaped section of coastline just north of the capital that sticks out into the Caspian Sea.

During the Soviet era, the Absheron was famous for being the most polluted stretch of coastline in the world. Oily black slicks formed on the water where oil companies drilled for the lucrative reserves beneath the sea bed, and toxic waste was pumped into the Caspian further upstream by factories in Sumgayit, the chemical manufacturing center of the Soviet Union.

Still, in recent years, the Absheron has gotten cleaner (and coastlines in other parts of the world, I suppose, dirtier), partly because the oil barons have moved further out to sea and partly because, with no public funding, most of the chemical plants in Sumgayit have gone bust.

Our visitors were less interested in the gloomy seashore than Yanar Dag, a tiny cluster of houses beside a hill eternally licked by blue flames. The man who operates the run-down tea house at the foot of Yanar Dag says it's been burning for centuries and that Zoroastrians used to come from hundreds of miles away to worship there.

It does have a bleak elegance -- particularly at night, when the flames light up the sparse surroundings -- if it wasn't for all the plastic bags. The whole place is littered with them: stuck to fence posts, caught up in trees, lining the roads.

Azeris love their plastic bags. Ten years ago they would have rinsed them clean, hung them out to dry and recycled them religiously. But these days they're so cheap, you can pick up a new one every time you go shopping.

There's a scam I've heard goes on in plastic bag factories in northern China. They make the bags for retailers in the West and then churn out millions of almost identical ones, but with a spelling mistake or two to justify the fact they can't sell them to the original buyer. Then they put them on the black market.

A few years ago, a small pet-shop in Glasgow became famous across Central Asia because its name was printed on tens of millions of red and yellow plastic bags and sold in markets from Ashgabat to Osh.

"All I'd wanted were some bags to put the bird seed in," the owner told backpacker after backpacker, who made the pilgrimage to his tiny shop in Scotland to hand him yet another crumpled bag.

I could have sworn I saw one of his bags on Saturday. But the flames of the ancient Zoroastrian shrine had engulfed it before I'd had to time to check.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.