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After thin plastics ban, life goes on

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It is almost a month since government issued a ban on thin plastics. Science and Environment writer CHARLES MKOKA has been exploring environment friendly alternatives and opportunities since the ban came into force.

At the heart of Lilongwe City, a small strip of land straddles the main bus depot and the market patronised by thousands of people on a daily basis.

This strip is characterised by waste of all kind. A skip that ferries garbage to the dump site rests on site covered in litter that keeps piling up on a daily basis such that the levels now spill all over the place reeking with stench.

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Most conspicuous from a distance and in abundance is the level of blue thin plastics that are disposed here after use and left to clutter the surrounding.

These have not only changed the scenery but they are a visual intrusion to many visitors from all walks of life coming to the heartbeat of the warm heart of Africa.

Across the country there are so many other sites in the commercial cities and markets that are experiencing similar waste management challenges. It is not surprising that these have turned into breeding grounds for communicable diseases such as dysentery, diarrhoea, malaria and cholera during rainy season.

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Of great concern is the chemical composition of the thin plastics, which makes them unable to decompose once used and disposed of, and can remain in the environment for over 100 years.

“Plastics are hazardous to human health and the environment. The chemicals used during manufacturing, and their degradation products, are released during the life cycle of a plastic,” says Samson Sajidu, Associate Professor in Chemistry and Vice Principal at Chancellor College.

Migration and urbanisation

Major cities in Malawi are experiencing rapid urbanisation due to rural-urban migration as Malawians are seeking employment and business opportunities in cities.

Top on the list of some of the undesirable effects has been deteriorating state of sanitation as evidenced by heaps of waste in our cities, roads and other settlements.

The situation is even worse in high density areas where structures are constructed haphazardly without regard to town planning regulations.

Global concern

Concern is growing globally over the threat that widespread plastic waste poses to marine life, with estimates of the overall financial damage of plastics to marine ecosystems standing at US$13 billion annually, according to two reports released on the opening day of the first United Nations Environment Assembly in 2014.

Valuing Plastic, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – supported report produced by the Plastic Disclosure Project and Trucost, makes the business case for managing and disclosing plastic use in the consumer goods industry.

It finds that the overall natural capital cost of plastic use in the consumer goods sector each year is US$75 billion.

“These reports show that reducing, recycling and redesigning products that use plastics can bring multiple green economy benefits – from reducing economic damage to marine ecosystems, tourism and fisheries industries, vital for many developing countries, to bringing savings and opportunities for innovation to companies while reducing reputational risks,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director.

Steiner’s observations are corroborated by Tawonga Mbale, Acting Director of Environmental Affairs.

“As a department we want to see environmentally friendly alternatives on the market. There is an opportunity for the private sector to come in and provide environmentally friendly bags,” she explains in an exclusive interview.

Exploring local solutions

Along the Lilongwe–Mchinji road is Never Ending Food, a permaculture home which believes in recycling and maximum utilisation of all resources to ensure they benefit us through water, soil, plant and animal conservation for food, income, health and nutrition security.

Stacia Nordin, a nutritionist and co-owner of Never Ending Food says the concept of permaculture is about making the most of all resources without wasting anything.

Never Ending Food is designed to be highly productive, in harmony with nature. Zoning is used to be the most efficient with resources, placing the things that need the most attention near to people and things that are managed more by nature farther away.

Here, they mulch the ground with dry leaves and grass, but this is just what nature does to keep soil healthy, productive and to prevent dust and mud.

“It doesn’t bother me if people say I am crazy, it allows me to do even more!” Nordin tells this writer.

When asked what she made of the whole plastic ban, the nutritionist did not mince words.

“Unfortunately it isn’t a real plastic ban; people have just shifted to a thicker plastic. I wish we had more of a public social dialogue of all ages, all walks of life, all professions for understanding real growth and development with our environment.

“We need to discuss why it is crucial for humans to embrace and care for it and how we can ensure that all our actions are good for our soils, air, water, plants and animals including the smallest insects,“ she said.

Similarly, some 350 kilometres south in Blantyre a group of women on a daily basis goes on the business errand of segregating plastic wastes.

Their main focus is to collect as much plastics as possible for a lucrative market that recycles the materials and produce new products.

According to Erich Geller, Managing Director of EJ Polymer, he buys waste plastics from companies and local people to recycle.

Once they have been sorted and processed they manufacture refuse bags and kitchen bin bags as well as damp proof sheeting.

Geller explained that their products are available in Shoprite, Chipiku and Peoples and the damp sheeting is sold to various hardware shops for resale to their customers.

“Our business model is based on the premise that we provide local entrepreneur the opportunity to earn an income by collecting waste plastics from the street and other areas and selling them to us. We have various programmes at schools where we are trying to create awareness about recycling,” says Geller.

He adds:

“In fact the ban on thin plastics works hand in hand with what we are trying to achieve and that people need to recover the waste plastic, refuse new plastics and finally recycle,” he said in response to a questionnaire.

Opportunity in disposed plastics Kusala Bizwick hails from Maulana village in traditional authority Malili in Lilongwe and leads a group of eight women and two men who reuse waste plastics into carrier bags, doormats, table mats, caps, cushion mattresses and shoes.

He explained in an interview that the initiative commenced in 2009 when his brother Luwayo explained how to reuse soft plastics to make woven resources.

“We have made substantial amount of money by developing these products through art. However, not many Malawians prefer to buy the products we make manually. It is the foreigners that are in the fore front of trying to grab these products and take them home as souvenirs after visiting the warm heart of Africa,” said Bizwick whose village is close to Chitedze Research Station.

He added that several youth who are part of the New life Permaculture have found this as an opportunity to afford paying school fees for themselves. This is a great step in self-determination to build a future with confidence from these handmade artistic works.

Bizwick also presented carriers bags made of bamboo and newspapers as environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic carrier bags.

“I can tell you that we have been receiving orders from tour operators such as Butterfly, Space Lodge and Mama Malawi to provide them these products so that they can sell them to their clients too. As a group we are making money from plastics while others are throwing them away,” said the soft spoken Bizwick.

In Lilongwe city between Area 25 and Kanengo Industrial Area young men use thick synthetic fibre to weave and produce hand baskets and flour carrying baskets that are very durable.

They buy the raw materials from industries which used them as ropes to tighten part of their cargo. Using different colours they are able to create beautiful baskets that now most people have realised are better and convenient when going shopping.

Along the Lilongwe–Salima road at Katengeza local artists produce bamboo baskets that are culturally in line with traditional values. Some have gone to the extent of treating the bamboo to ensure pests such as weevils are deterred from weakening them.

Why ban plastics?

Statistically, plastics are widely used in Malawi due to their low cost of production, packaging convenience, lightness, resistance to impact damage and versatility. There has been a proliferation of plastics over the last decade and the resultant effect has been a rapid increase in the amount of plastic waste generated.

Head of Programmes at Leadership for Environment and Development based in Zomba, Gibson Mphepo, a regional think tank that looks into issues of natural resources management and climate change, said he expected to see more down to earth awareness messages about the ban on such a large scale apart from the ban targeting manufacturers, distributors and retailers in town.

Malawi banned the production, importation, distribution and use of thin plastics (less than 60 microns) effective 30th June, 2015.

The ban on thin plastics came in effect in order to reduce and control the negative impacts associated with indiscriminate use and disposal of thin plastics and encourage use of alternative environmentally friendly products such as paper Jumbos, baskets among many others.

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