It is 5am in Machinjiri Township on the eastern side of Blantyre and the morning breeze is fouled by fumes of burning plastics from nearby kitchens.
Many homesteads here burn plastic carrier bags to ignite fires for cooking and heating—a common sight in the country where nearly 95 percent of all households cook using firewood and charcoal, according to the 2018 Population and Housing Census.
Burning plastics pollutes the air, but many perceive it as the easiest way to eliminate the paperweight carrier bags locally known as jumbos, which litter both rural and urban localities.
“It is not easy to refuse or get rid of plastics. When shopping, sellers always offer you a jumbo either free of charge or cheaply. Unfortunately, we don’t know what to do with them after use. We just burn them,” says Amina Moyo, burning some more in her fireplace.
Every day, Moyo wakes up at around 6am to heat water and cook meals for her husband who works as a driver in the city and two school-going children. In this way, she inhales the nauseating fumes to ensure the charcoal catches the fire without delay.
“The plastics have become handy as the country has almost run out of indigenous trees that once produced charcoal that burned easily,” she says.
In fact, Malawi, where trees are disappearing faster than they are being replaced, now ‘imports’ charcoal from Mozambique to meet the energy needs of a rapidly ballooning population. Only two in 100 people use electricity fo cooking, the census shows.
For Moyo and her neighbours, fuelwood from the remaining forests burns too slow. Yet settlements like theirs are never short of plastics widely used to quicken the process at the expense of the environment and human health.
“Plastics are an eyesore as well as a trusted partner. Imagine the pocket-size jumbos seen everywhere you go. As many people buy basics in bits and pieces, from chicken parts and flour sachets seen in many markets, these plastics will continue littering and burning in kitchens. Unfortunately, we don’t know that they hurt our health,” says Veronica Mwale, from Machinjiri.
The government outlawed thin plastics in 2015, four years after experts visited Africa’s cleanest city—Kigali, Rwanda—in 2011. Last month, the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the ban long challenged by 14 plastic manufacturers citing their business interests and jobs. The ruling by five judges clears the way for the Environmental Affairs Department to stop production, distribution and use of plastic materials thinner than 60 microns.
Deputy director of environmental affairs Michael Makonombera unpacked the ban on all forms of plastics easily blown away by winds.
“The lightweight plastics constitute the majority of plastic used in the country. They are easily torn or thrown away after a single use. This leads to littering. In most areas, they are dumped along main roads, storm drains, rivers and open spaces. They take centuries to biodegrade [decompose], so they remain on site for a long time,” he explains.
Makonombera unveiled a national strategy to ensure compliance with the ban, raise public awareness and combat the impact of indiscriminate use of thin plastics on the environment, including water sources, open spaces and air.
“Plastics are an eyesore and they clog the drainage system, increasing the likelihood of floods. Besides, the disposal of plastics by burning poses a health hazard because they release fumes containing dioxins and furans, which cause cancer,” he warns.
While replacing lightweight plastics with thicker bags is expected to reduce the number of times people buy jumbos, not all reusable plastic career bags are actually being reused. Some are going up in smoke the same way Moyo and her neighbours light up fires every day.
This exposes people, especially women and girls, to deadly fumes.
“Dioxin is toxic to humans and when inhaled through exposure to fumes can accumulate in the human body and be transmitted from mothers to babies via the placenta. Dioxin attached to dust also falls into waterways and crops,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns.
During a march in support of the plastic ban, Malawi Environmental Endowment Trust (Meet) national coordinator Karen Price termed the ban on thin plastic “a win for the environment and human health”, saying the country needs to outlaw all plastics—“not just thin ones”.
The use of plastics to make fires worsens indoor air pollution caused by cooking using firewood and charcoal. According to WHO, the fumes from these unclean cooking fuels—and coal—claim about 3.8 million lives every year.
Floney Kabaghe, an environmental scientist at the Polytechnic’s Department of Applied Sciences, explains how making fires for cooking could be killing Moyo and her neighbours slowly.
She states: “When burning plastics, hazardous emissions escape into the air. As you breathe in and out, you absorb the toxic pollutants which increase the likelihood of cancer.
“Unfortunately, no fire completely burns plastics. Even the ash contains some grains that pollute land, air and water, so no one is safe from the effects of burning plastics.”
And Moyo wishes many Malawians knew the hidden costs of plastics burning in kitchens and open fireplaces.
“We are sitting on a time bomb,” she says. “Had we known the dangers of plastic waste and how we can get around this, we wouldn’t be cooking the dangerous way.”