18 Jul 2018

BirdLife Malawi campaign compels court to uphold ban on thin plastic

WESM (BirdLife in Malawi) united universities, faith groups and community organisations in a highly successful campaign which helped to fast-track a delayed court ruling on the ban on thin plastic in this landlocked southern African country.

TV and radio appearances and a peaceful march drummed up public support © WESM
TV and radio appearances and a peaceful march drummed up public support © WESM
By Jude Fuhnwi

The wide use, and poor waste management, of non-biodegradable plastic bags in Malawi has recently become a major concern for government, environmental and conservation organisations, and advocates of a safe and healthy environment. Plastic bag pollution threatens the country’s ecosystems at all levels including land, river and lakes. Plastic packages have replaced natural and biodegradable materials as a cheap, quick way to package food and shopping items – leading to debates on the negative effects that their disposal could have on the environment and people’s health.

“Plastics find their way into the fish that we eat, which is a danger to human health. There are numerous cases of livestock ingesting plastic and dying in Chikwawa District. Thin plastics clog roadside rain water drains, causing stagnation of water and creating breeding ground for diseases,” said Dr Tiwonge Ivy Mzumara-Gawa of Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM). Dr Tiwonge chaired a committee organising a series of advocacy activities to commemorate the 2018 World Environment Day under the theme “Beat Plastic Pollution”. “Plastics are washed into our rivers and lakes which affects aquatic life. Studies in Africa have shown the presence of microplastics in fish and birds. These are consumed in Malawi and thus it is of concern, especially as Lake Malawi hosts a large number of endemic fish.”

"Plastics find their way into the fish we eat... there are numerous cases of livestock ingesting plastic and dying."

Malawi has been taking the plastic waste issue seriously, introducing a ban on thin plastic less than 60 micrometers in thickness and prohibiting its use. The ban extends to the production and importation of the material. The first attempt to ban thin plastics in Malawi was introduced in December 2012, but was suspended one month later when the Plastic Manufacturers Association of Malawi (PMAM) challenged the ban in court. The Department of Environmental Affairs (EAD) in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining then worked closely with the PMAM to prepare them for the ban.

 

The campaign was covered widely in the press © WESM

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On 30 June 2015, after discussions with stakeholders, government effected the ban on thin plastics of less than 60 microns, and in February 2016, the environmental affairs department began enforcement monitoring of the ban. The ban was the cut off point for the use, sale, production, importation and exportation of plastic bags and sheets of less than 60 microns in Malawi, unless exempted. The enforcement still faced resistance from some plastic manufacturers who again challenged the ban in a law court. A hearing of the case was concluded but for more than one year, there was still no verdict.

The high-profile campaign pressed the court to pass a judgement on the case a day before the planned march

As a leading environmental and conservation organisation in Malawi, BirdLife Partner WESM brought together their civil society organisation partners, academia and faith-based organisations in Malawi’s second city, Blantyre, to advocate a ruling on the ban on thin plastic case that was still pending. The advocacy included a planned peaceful march to the Blantyre High Court – where the hearing of the case took place – to submit a petition to the registrar, calling for a decision on the case. Prior to the peaceful march, WESM and their partner organisations and groups had a briefing with the press, participated in various tv and radio programmes in which they reminded people about the case and explained to them the significance of an immediate verdict to be passed by the court. They also used the press briefing and their participation on the broadcast programmes to drum up public support for their march on 15 June 2018. This vibrant advocacy pressed the court to pass a judgement on the case on 14 June 2018, one day before the planned march.

 

 

“The case ruling came on the day before the march. But we still marched as planned, but to a different destination. Over 500 people turned up for the march. Cutting the source of the thin plastic is key to conservation efforts, therefore these regulations are a key step to addressing the impacts of thin plastics in Malawi. However, we realise that enforcement of these regulations is key,” said Dr Tiwonge.

The organisations and groups that teamed up with WESM to push for this judgement to be passed, include; Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), Malawi Environment Endowment Trust (MEET), Malawi Creation Care Network (MCCN), Association of Environmental Journalists (AEJ), the Polytechnic, Churches Action in Relief and Development (CARD), Coordination Union for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (CURE), Green Agricans, Concerned Youth Organisation and Muslim Association of Malawi. The Malawi Environment Endowment Trust (MEET) sponsored the campaign and ensured wide media coverage.

In the ruling signed by the Hon. Justice Healey Potani, the court states that: “It is noted that at the commencement of these proceedings sometime in early 2016, the applicants obtained a stay order staying the implementation of the decisions complained of herein which effectively meant that the ban on the manufacturing, distribution, sale and use of plastics of less than 60 microns could not be implemented. The matter having been dismissed, the respondents are at liberty to implement the regulations and ban.”

This court decision is expected to drive changes in practice and policy in Malawi to advance healthy environmental practices for people and nature.