From thin carrier bags dancing to whistling winds in open markets to many more in the hands of shoppers heading home, single-use plastics in Malawi remain the in-thing despite a nationwide ban.
Thin plastics seen strewn on the roadside still dominate the country’s shopping culture five years after government banned them.
The inescapable sights expose failure to make the nationwide ban work a decade after the government flew policymakers to Rwanda to learn how Kigali became the continent’s cleanest city.
So popular are the banned carrier bags that few Malawians go home without one in hand and the have-nots are sometimes sneered as less caring if not simply broke.
“Real breadwinners do not come home empty-handed, but bring home a jumbo or two, even if it contains a single loaf of bread, for a spouse and children awaiting their return after a hectic day,” says Stella Gama, from the densely populated Makhetha Township, west of Blantyre City Centre.
For Gama and her neighbours, mentions of ‘jumbos’ mean more of the thin plastics going up in smoke, littering open spaces or clogging streams when they empty their shopping.
However, conservationists warn against the breakdown in the enforcement of the environmental protection regulations upheld by the highest court.
To them, it negates the lengthy State-sponsored legal battle against the manufacturers opposed to the ban as a war on their businesses and jobs.
The environmentalists are concerned about piling plastic waste in waterways and crop fields as regulators at the Environmental Affairs Department (EAD) look away.
After the four-year court tussle, the environmental protectors have sporadically fined and sealed factories defying the ban.
Throughout their crushing courtroom defeat, the profit makers accused the government of imposing the ban without hearing them out.
They also argued that EAD overlooked economic hardship the ban would cause and similar regulations within southern Africa.
Campaigner Chifundo Dalireni, from the Wildlife and Environmental Society in Malawi (Wesm), says the slow march on thin plastics could be symptomatic of zeal to make it work.
He states: “The government is implementing with limitations due to inadequate political will as the EAD has tried its best to close the companies who were found to continue producing the banned plastics.
“For instance, recently, former minister Symon Vuwa-Kaunda made a statement which defeats efforts being done as he backed the producers. But technocrats are willing to enforce the ban.”
Kaunda ordered the reopening of four defiant companies sealed by EAD, giving a glimpse into how prominent politicians could be abusing their power to the detriment of the environment.
Dalireni, whose organisation teaches school-going children to refuse and reuse plastics, is concerned about political excesses that twist government officials’ arms in the push to make environmental laws and policies work.
“Limited political will demotivate the technocrats. The agencies responsible for environmental protection, including the civil society, find it hard to make significant progress,” he laments.
This, coupled with conflicting policies as well as shortage of staff and resources in the relevant government agencies, slows the war on plastics people often burn or dump in the open after single use.
“The new minister needs to support the relevant agencies such as EAD with resources and demonstrate political will to enforce the ban. Time is running out,” he says.
Last week, Minister of Forest and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo warned public officials against taking unlawful orders.
“I have advised officials from my ministry to enforce the law as it is without fear or favour. If people are not comfortable, there are ways to influence amendments,” she stated in an interview.
Tembo declared her predecessor’s decrees cancelled.
“It’s null and void because we have the law and no one is above the law,” says the Lilongwe City West legislator, where waste keeps piling .
Looking back, Reginald Mumba, executive director of Coordinating Union for Rehabilitation of the Environment (Cure), says a silent compromise in the integrity system is contributing to the failure to stop capitalists still manufacturing the outlawed thin plastics.
In June 2018, Cure convened a march for environmental justice a day after the High Court overturned the manufacturers’ injunction, a verdict upheld by the Malawi Supreme Court a year later.
He states: “While the responsibility to implement the ban is a multi-stakeholder undertaking, the government is the lead player. The failure reflects on weak government systems, particularly the political will.
“The culture of impunity for the laws and disregard for environmental conservation, in particular, has perverted our systems.”
He urges everyone to play a part in reducing, reusing and rejecting thin plastics.
“While we learn about the need for environmental protection, the general feeling among most citizens is that it is the responsibility of government agencies to conserve the environment. This is wrong. Environmental conservation has been mainstreamed in all sectors.”