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Malawi’s slow transition into plastic-free zone

Malawi’s transition into a plastic fee country has been slow with manufacturers still producing thin plastics and the public being left with no other option but to continue using thin plastics.

In August 2019, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the government by allowing it to effect a ban on plastic under the thickness of 60 microns.

This put Malawi in the same group as Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania which have also banned plastic.

The landmark ruling by the court signaled a definite end to a legal battle that span for over two years. This meant that the government was now free to ban the importation, production, use and sale of thin plastics.

But in a country where thin plastics have been relied upon for decades, it is obvious that authorities will need to enforce stringent measures to change people’s mindset.

When travelling around the country, the effects that thin plastics have had on the environment cannot be over-exaggerated as they are evident no matter where you are in Malawi.

The infamous blue plastic bag is a sight that cannot be missed as it is present almost everywhere making it a long term reminder that thin plastics are not biodegradable.

Despite this, the public still relies on the thin plastic bag to carry around various items bought from a street corner and even in local grocery stores.

In places such as the Limbe market in Blantyre, there are dozens of men and women have made a living out of selling thin plastic bags.

When asked of their knowledge on the effects that thin plastics have on the environment, many have little knowledge on the matter.

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This visible knowledge gap on issues affecting the environment has pushed the Co-ordination Unit for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (CURE) to call for intensive public awareness programs to ensure that everyone is made fully aware of the impact of thin plastics.

Reginald Mumba who is the Acting Director at CURE is of the view that proper sensitization can assist in ensuring that everyone plays their role in saving the environment.

“We are playing our part and spreading the word on the impact of thin plastics on the environment and people’s livelihoods, but we also need the government to assist us because it is a fact that not many people know about thin plastics,” Mumba said.

On the part of the government, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Natural Resources Sangwani Phiri highlights that they will do public awareness concurrently with the enforcement of the ban.

He adds to say that though the transition period was meant to be shorter, it will take the country a longer period of time as some manufacturers are manufacturing underground.

“We have recieved reports of that some thin plastics are still being manufactured at night, so we will be investigating and possible giving out fines and shutting them down for their lack of compliance,” Phiri explained.

However, with the imminent loss of business for plastic bag dealers across the country, the National Youth Network on Climate Change Program Manager, Dominic Nyasulu believes that a whole new business opportunity has now presented itself.

75,000 tonnes of plastic is currently produced in Malawi each year, of which 80% is single-use plastic that cannot be recycled

Nyasulu emphasizes on the need for young to now be empowered with resources so that they can come up with environmentally friendly innovations to meet a whole new demand on the local market.

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“I think this is an opportunity for young people to engage into small, clean enterprise. Young people need to be innovative enough and take advantage of this opportunity that has now presented it self,” Nyasulu added.

According to the United Nations Development Program, 75,000 tonnes of plastic is currently produced in Malawi each year, of which 80% is single-use plastic that cannot be recycled.

And the UN Environment Program estimates that as of 2018, about 380 million tons of plastic is produced worldwide annually.

The effects of plastic pollution can be seen and felt by a many. For example environmentalists say plastic pollution has even trickled down to marine life.

It has been proven that fish that has consumed minute particles of plastic can affect the health of the human that has consumed it.

To prevent this on our part it is advisable to resort to using bags made from other materials.

Mumba of CURE suggests using bags made from materials such as cotton or thicker plastic. “Manufacturers now need to be creative and design recyclable bags for domestic use because if they fail to adhere to the ban, Malawians will also find it difficult to conform,” Mumba said.

The Ministry of Natural Resources estimates that it will take the country six to eight months to have thin plastics off the market. However over eight months since the court ruling, Malawians are continuing to use thin plastics and are yet find alternatives.

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