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Why this plastic action on plastics

Like most government ministries and departments, the Department of Environmental Affairs is yet to impress me. It has occasional flashes of brilliance, but the not-so-brilliant occasions seem to always weigh heavier. Last week the department had an occasion to be proud of when it penalized the Crossroads Hotel in Lilongwe.

The department fined Crossroads Hotel K1 million for “discharging pollutants into the environment”. Apparently the hotel allowed sewage water to flow into the M1 Road reserve. Besides the cash fine, the hotel was also ordered to clean up the mess it made in the road reserve.

I thought this was commendable because it showed that the departrment does inspections and it is serious about enforcing rules. You might recall that in April the department also ordered the shutdown of the international fast-food franchise, KFC restaurant in Lilongwe over below-par sanitation standards.

While some of the efforts done by the department to protect the environment are praiseworthy, I find that it is neglecting meatier issues about the environment where sustained action could actually move the needle.

Let us take the issue of the use of thin and single-use plastics for example. A ban was effected, well and good, but enforcement is absent. Companies that manufacture the plastics are in business as usual and those who distribute are operating as normal.

In the just-ended week, government-led activities to mark the International Day of Peace commemorated globally under the theme, “Climate Action for Peace”. The theme was localised to involve the youth and it read “Youth in Climate Action for Peace”. Articles about the activities made fascinating reading, but I must say, I was left unimpressed.

My dissatisfaction comes from knowing that this activity, like many others before, would simply save to tick a box, provide an opportunity for selfies to feed social media and give an interview to get a few seconds of television time on the evening news. It is once-off, then move to something else.

Why can’t the government take advantage of these commemorative days to introduce more sustainable environmental conservation programs such as regular cleaning up of public areas? Our neighbours are doing it in Tanzania. Every Saturday in Dar el Salaam, no business opens before cleaning up their surroundings. The government there has also banned thin and single-use plastics and the ban is actually being enforced.

It is a nice gesture to step out of Capital Hill and walk around town picking up plastics and then clean up a market or two. But real and meaningful impact would be seen if the gesture turned into a sustained effort to keep our cities clean.

I applaud UN in Malawi for leading the way by banning thin and single-use plastics at all its events and at events it sponsors or done by organisations it finances. This is good, but more can be done. The UN must use its influence to get our government to enforce its own regulations on plastics.

Do not get me wrong, I think it is awesome that UN convinced senior government officials to participate in commemorative events about the environment and take part in picture-opportunity activities such as cleaning up a market. But what would really be remarkable is if these government officials could be assisted to have a changed mindset.

It is a shame that so far most of what has been done to save and protect the environment has been as plastic as the plastics we all want to get rid of from our surroundings. Let us all stop trying to look like we are doing something to preserve the environment and actually do something.

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