Minister of Environment, Tourism and Wildlife Symon Vuwa Kaunda has ordered the re-opening of four plastic manufacturing companies sealed two weeks ago for contravening the law, opting to prioritise the June 23 fresh presidential election.
In an internal communication we have seen, the minister has instructed the ministry to facilitate the reopening of the factories, which manufacture environmentally hazardous thin plastics, in defiance of a Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal judgement upholding the ban.
“We are facing an election next week. Hold this exercise for now until after elections. Open factories and impose a fine,” reads Vuwa Kaunda’s comment dated June 12 2020 and written in free hand on the memo from the ministry’s principal secretary (PS) dated June 11 2020 under file reference MET PW/C/05.
The memo was meant to appraise the minister on an exercise the Environmental Affairs Department undertook to inspect several plastic manufacturing companies in Blantyre and Lilongwe based on information that some were contravening the law by continuing to produce the banned thin plastics.
When asked on the link between saving the environment and elections, the minister said in a telephone interview that elections are a sensitive matter and that his decision considered the current political climate.
He also claimed that public utility service providers have also suspended disconnections of supply for non-payment of bills until after the election.
Said the minister: “In as much as we want to enforce the law, which is a must, we must also be mindful of the political environment.”
On June 4 2020, the Department of Environmental Affairs closed four companies—OG Plastics, City Plastics Industries, Anchor Industries and Qingdao Plastics based in Lilongwe and Blantyre—for continuing to produce thin plastics of less than 60 microns contrary to the Supreme Court order and the Environmental Management Act.
If found guilty, the companies risk paying fines in millions of kwacha. The law also imposes a custodial sentence of up to three months for offenders.
In a notice dated June 4 2020, director of Environmental Affairs Tawonga Mbale-Luka asked the companies to comply with the department’s order and fined them K5 million each to be settled by June 20 2020.
Lawyer Chikosa Banda faulted the minister’s justification, saying it was irrelevant to the situation in question.
The minister also claimed that he ordered the reopening of the companies in compliance with a court order in favour of Plastic Manufacturers issued on March 2020 which restrained the Environmental Affairs Department from stopping the manufacturing of certain types of plastics pending judicial review.
But officials from the ministry familiar with this issue disputed the minister’s assertion, saying the banned plastics outlined in the court order were already exempted in the regulations of 2015.
There has been a long court battle over the ban of thin plastics of less than 60 microns. In 2015, government banned the use of thin plastics under Environmental Management Regulations (2015), but plastic manufacturers obtained an injunction against the move on grounds that they were not consulted and that the decision would affect their economic rights.
After a four-year court battle, in July last year a seven-judge panel of the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal chaired by Chief Justice Andrew Nyirenda upheld government’s ban on production, distribution and importation of thin plastics of less than 60 microns
A report produced by Lilongwe Wildlife Trust shows that the 15 plastic manufacturing companies currently operating in Malawi produce an estimated 75 000 tonnes of plastic per year with 80 percent of production being the banned single-use plastics.
While the industry claims that 5 000 jobs could be lost if plastic bags of less than 60 microns thick are banned, the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust report warns that more “costs of plastic pollution for municipalities, fisheries, agriculture, tourism and human health are likely to be higher than the costs of a ban, especially when the likely adaptive response and regional trends are taken into account”.
The report further warns the country’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Malawi, could run out of fish stocks by 2050 unless the use of thin plastics is curtailed.