Water packaged in plastic bottles typifies Malawi’s conference culture. Increasingly, participants of such meetings sip bottled water to keep in shape.
However, the plastic bottle has come into question amid calls for a sustainable lifestyle—for few actually reuse the plastics or discard it responsibly after use.
The calls against bottled water rolled back on August 31, when environmentalists met the Environmental Affairs Department (EAD)to discuss strategies to reactivate the ban on thin plastic.
Deputy director of environmental affairs Michael Makonombera says the ban is the first step towards a total ban on single-use plastic.
Ironically, the environmental protection department served water bottled in plastics to hydrate the brains demanding bolder action against plastic waste and pollution. This caused a stir, with Chifundo Dalireni, head of policy and advocacy at Wildlife and Environment Society of Malawi (Wesm), flashing out a metallic bottle from his backpack to stress the need for reusable alternatives to unwanted plastics.
“As campaigners, we need to live by example and show people what they can use in place of plastic bags and bottles,” he implored.
Setting the pace
Similarly, Dr Tawonga Gawa, from Malawi University of Science and Technology, pulled out a cloth satchel she uses as a sustainable substitute to the banned plastic bags.
“Everywhere we go, we must strive to show people what works,” she stated. “We’ll not win the fight by telling people to stop using plastics, but demonstrating that they can live without plastics.
The call for viable substitutes during gatherings convened by government organs, non-governmental organisations and the private sector persuaded Makonombera to announce dramatic cutbacks. He pledged that EAD will not tolerate drinks packaged in plastic bottles in future meetings.
“We really need to live by what we preach,” he said. “In the meetings to come, we will put a water dispenser where people can go to refill their reusable bottles.”
The drama mirrors a rising demand for plastic-free meetings in both lakeside and upland resorts.
And EAD does not lack examples.
In 2016, the department hosted the 12th International Community-Based Adaptation Forum at Crossroads Hotel in Lilongwe with no plastic bottles in sight. Instead, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) demanded water dispensers in strategic spaces and asked delegates to bring reusable drinking bottles. The think-tank has the policy to phase out single-use plastic at its events knowing that its activities affect the environment it works to safeguard.
What not to do
Government may have banned thin plastics and spent five years battling to avert court injunctions obtained by 14 plastic manufactures, but plastic, both thin and thick, remain part of its daily activities.
Recently, President Peter Mutharika was seen shopping with a thin plastic carrier bag in Blantyre. By going against the ban on paperweight plastic, the head of State and government infuriated activists who accused him of fluffing an opportunity to send a strong message against plastic pollution and show citizens viable alternatives. The proponents of the ban flooded their chat groups with photographs of John Magufuli of Tanzania who backed the war on plastics by going shopping with a wicker basket which decomposes into manure in no time while plastics take centuries to biodegrade.
Mutharika has yet to say a word to dial up the anti-plastic ban contrived months after he was elected in 2014. The government has waged a legal battle with plastic manufacturers until the country’s supreme court upheld the ban last month.
Meanwhile, the desired policy shifts are discernible among international agencies, which have announced bold targets to stop plastic pollution.
This month, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which supports the government to protect the environment and promote sustainable development, has prohibited the single-use plastic at all events it organises and finances.
Resident representative Shijeki Kamatsubara says the ban extends to events convened by organisations with UNDP financial support.
“This complements efforts by the government of Malawi to ban single-use plastic for a cleaner and healthy environment,” he said in a press statement.
Kamatsubara urged service providers and partners to develop innovative ways to replace thin plastic with “greener and innovative alternatives”—a shift most likely to shake up the way hotels and other venues do business.
EAD spokesperson Sangwani Phiri commended UNDP for championing strides towards plastic-free meetings, saying some hotels, including Protea Ryalls in Blantyre, have already started making adjustments to their service delivery. The four-star hotel in the heart of the commercial city serves water in reusable glass bottles placed on tables once dotted with plastic water bottles.
The brains behind the initiative tout this as their contribution towards the push for sustainable development and reducing plastic pollution.