For a Malawian child, break time sets into motion a race to grab some snacks at a mini-market within the school yard.
However, most of the bites come in thin plastic bags that pollute water sources, open spaces and air across the country.
The plastics vendors use to protect food from houseflies, dust and dirty hands keep littering schools and their surroundings.
After the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the ban, change agents are turning to schools to teach children to refuse plastics that pose a hazard to the environment and human health.
“The fight against plastics cannot be won with the court ruling alone or without involving strategic partners such as schools,” says Sangwani Phiri, spokesperson of the Environmental Affairs Department (EAD).
The department is championing the ban of thin plastics as the first step towards banning all plastics within a year.
Its strategy to kick out plastics lists the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology among key partners. Phiri says EAD will work closely with the ministry to raise awareness in schools on how to manage plastic waste.
“We are engaging the ministry to ensure that all those who sell their products in schools do not use plastics. Headmasters should enforce the ban on all businesses that are using outlawed plastics,” says Phiri.
Phiri commended some institutions for banning the use of thin plastics in their activities.
“The good example is the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) which has sent a strong message against further use of plastics. School authorities do not need to wait to be told to affect the ban,” he says.
Chitipi Primary School in Lilongwe is hit hard by plastic pollution caused by pupils and traders at a nearby school.
“We will set aside a day every week for teachers and students to pick up plastics from the school ground,” says head teacher Mtunduwatha Sankhulani.
The weekly clean-up campaign would be to the school what a monthly social service day is to Rwanda, which banned thin plastics in 2008.
The country, where Malawi learned how to ban plastic pollution in 2011, has special days when citizens come together to clean their surroundings.
In this way, its capital, Kigali, has become Africa’s cleanest city.
Environmentalists say schools, from primary to university, offer Malawi a unique pathway to replicate Rwanda’s example.
Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (Wesm) works with pupils in all regions to pick plastic bottles and stuff them with thin plastics. The bottles are then used to pave flower beds, adding beauty to lawns once littered with plastics.
Wesm head of policy and advocacy Chifundo Dalireni says the non-governmental organisation will take advantage of its wildlife and environmental clubs in schools to ensure learners actively participate in eliminating plastics from the environment.
“We intend to increase awareness in schools and promotion of different innovations so that the school-going children have the right knowledge, attitudes and skills to minimise the use of thin plastic,” he says.
Dalireni says the campaign will senstise learners to the dangers of plastics to the environment and people.
The Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT), whose study showed 94 percent of people in Malawi support the ban on thin plastics, backs initiatives that target schools to create a generation that can do with less plastics.
“This is a winning formula. The majority of thin plastics used in schools come in the form of the little blue plastic bags that are used to package chips, fritters and peanuts. Schools should play their part in banning the bag by encouraging students to bring their own containers which they can use to store their snacks, says LWT campaign manager Yolanda Ng’oma.
She co-authored a report which shows that three quarters of the plastics produced in the country are neither reused nor recycled, explaining widespread plastic waste piling up in both rural and urban areas.
“A reduction in the demand for such packaging can and will lead to the reduction in the supply of these unwanted plastic bags by food vendors,” she says.
Ng’oma wants the Education Ministry to include the harmful effects of plastics and sustainable alternatives in the school curriculum. “Young Malawians, the leaders of tomorrow, need to understand the environmental challenges we are facing and work towards solving this problem in their own innovative ways for a better future,” she says.n