Malawi has implemented a ban on the production and distribution of thin plastics, earning praise from environmental and conservation activists. This follows a prolonged legal battle between plastic manufacturers and government, which the government has now won. The ban, which was originally implemented in 2015, was being appealed by plastics manufacturers led by Aero Plastics Industries Limited on the grounds that they were not properly consulted on the implications of the ban and the harm this would do to their businesses. However, the country’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Appeal, dismissed the appeal in November 2019, agreeing with the government’s argument that plastics manufacturers had been given enough warning and time to prepare for the cessation of thin plastics’ production.
The Supreme Court panel of seven judges led by the country’s Chief Justice, Andrew Nyirenda, dismissed the appeal, thereby freeing government to implement the thin plastics ban. The ban prohibits production and distribution and importation of single use plastic with a thickness of less than 60 microns.
Reacting to the ruling, Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining spokesperson Sangwani Mwafulirwa hailed the decision by the country’s highest court, saying this will go a long way in combating the environmental degradation caused by the single use plastics.
“We are excited as a ministry to have finally won the legal battle which enables us to enforce the ban,” he said. “Going forward, this will essentially reduce the waste that is coming from thin and single use plastics, therefore fighting environmental degradation.”
Mwafulirwa further warned that violating the ban carries the potential penalty of three-months’ imprisonment, and companies found to be in breach risk a fine of MK10 million (US$13,000) and closure of their factories as stipulated in the Environmental Management (Platistcs) Regulations.
Blessings Pongwe, a resident of Lunzu (a high density township in Blantyre), welcomed the ban, saying that single use plastics were polluting his area to the extent that playgrounds have become unsafe for children, having been essentially used as a dumping ground for thin plastics.
“The whole neighborhood is full of plastic waste owing to irresponsible dumping by residents which is making the places look untidy and unsafe for kids,” he bemoaned.
Pongwe went on to say that most of the dumped plastics were ending up in the township’s streams and rivers, therefore disturbing the area’s ecosystem. He hopes in the long run this will be halted following the ban.
Livestock farmer Amini Saidi says he has welcomed the ban as he hopes it will control proliferation of plastics in his area, which has becomes so troublesome as to result in the loss of livestock.
“The thin plastics ban is long overdue,” he said, “as the damage caused by plastics has been huge. Personally I have lost three goats in the last 12 months due to them eating plastics which were found all over.”
“Losing three goats has been devastating on a low income farmer like me” he continued. “And what about losses incurred by other livestock farmers all the country?”
A survey of some of the crop farmers around the semi-urban areas of Lunzu found that most of them support the ban, with the main reason being that they hope it will solve the soil infertility problems the plastic have been causing around the township. Some of the residents use the land to grow Malawi’s staple food, maize. However, harvests have been dwindling over the years, due mainly to land degradation caused by the unnecessary dumping of thin plastics.
A recent government-commissioned study, with support from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, found out that the country’s largest fresh water lake, Lake Malawi, could run out of fish stocks by 2050 if the use of thin plastics is not controlled, thereby depriving the citizens of a readily available source of protein.
The report from the study found out that the cost of plastic pollution on towns, fisheries, livestock, agriculture, tourism and human health is higher than the cost of the ban, especially when the likely adaptive response and regional trends are taken into account.
Malawi has over 14 plastic manufacturers that are in operation, producing an estimated 70 000 tonnes of plastic each year. The industry employs about 5,000 people and contributes about 25 percent of export income. It is believed 85 percent of this is made up of single use plastic, which has been blamed for land degradation in a country that is already struggling with the effects of climate change. Weather extremes are worsening, with alternating drought and flooding that is crippling the economy and livelihoods.
In banning single use thin plastics, the South East African country joins other African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, all of which effected single use plastics bans some years ago.
James Banda, an environmental activist, says that, although the thin plastics ban will have some immediate challenges such as loss of business to manufacturers and potential job losses, he thinks the ban will spur the market to find more durable and environmental friendly alternatives, which could make profits in the long run.
“Obviously the ban will have some negative impact on some people, however going forward, the industry should strive to find durable alternatives like the re-usable bags and bio-degradable carrier bags,” he said.
However, the ban will not be exclusive. Plastics used for wrapping confectionary, fruits, fresh fish and poultry products are still being allowed on the market.
About the Feature Image: In southern Malawi, the erosion-resistant rock of Mulanje Massif, a large mountain mass, rises dramatically above the landscape near Lake Chilwa, a shallow, saline lake. The upper slopes of the massif are protected forest. The deep green color south of the massif is tea and macadamia farms.