Saving her goats meant making Malawi’s plastics ban real

Plastic bags trapped by the Mudi River bridge. Goldman Environmental Prize photo.

Gloria Majiga-Kamoto, who just won a Goldman Prize – the ‘Green Nobel’,  didn’t set out to lead an environmental revolution in Malawi. She doesn’t even like being called an environmentalist. She just wanted to make sure that the goats being raised by her sustainable agriculture project wouldn’t die from eating the plastic that blew into their fields. So she realized she had to go beyond agricultural advocacy.

While Malawi had enacted a ban on single use plastics in 2015, it wasn’t being enforced because the plastic producing companies had tied it up in court, claiming the ban violated their economic rights. When Majiga-Kamoto first began paying attention to the problem in 2016, they were churning out 75,000 tons of plastic every year, 80% of it single-use. As well as killing her goats, plastic waste was choking waterways and creating breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

So Majiga-Kamoto started networking with others, helping to organize protest marches, debate industry representatives on television, and raise money for a legal campaign. In July 2019, Malawi’s top court upheld the ban. A year later, three factories illegally producing single-use plastics were shut down and the equipment of a fourth factory had been impounded.

It’s not that she’s a big fan of protest, she told Quartz in an interview. “I tend to prefer conversation, trying to reason together, but in this case, it was clear that wasn’t going to work. Throughout the campaign, we tried to talk with companies and hear what they think we should be doing as a country. And we just couldn’t get through to them. They say, “We’re a huge contributor to the economy, we pay taxes, we’re providing a service, people need plastic.” But that taught me that the things they care about are not the things we care about in our communities.”

“You want to be able to create an environment where everyone thrives. If it’s just one person or one company thriving, it’s not the kind of world we should aspire to be building.”

The long fight to enforce the ban was often frustrating, and it led her to examine her own lifestyle and her own choices, because she too uses plastic. “You can realize you’re part of the problem, but you have a part to play in the solution.”

Success comes from showing people how the problem affects them, she told Quartz. “A lot of farmers could absolutely relate to having lost a goat or finding plastic ingested by their livestock. If we talk about carbon emissions, they won’t relate.”

in her office at the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy in Blantyre, Malawi. Goldman Environmental Prize photo.

And once people see that, a cultural shift happens, she says. “We need to get to a place where we’re not just changing consumer patterns but promoting more sustainable alternatives. The ban is only as effective as we as citizens allow it to be, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Cleaning up the mess is going to be costly, and right now, citizens pay that cost, she says, because the taxes paid by corporations are far below the cleanup costs. Corporations need to become part of the solution and not just the problem, she says.