Malawi’s plastic bag win

Our world has a rubbish problem, and it’s hitting people living in poverty the hardest. That’s why we’re running the Rubbish Campaign to tackle plastic pollution before it’s too late.

Tens of thousands of people from across the world have already signed the Rubbish Campaign petition, made lifestyle changes to reduce their plastic use, and used their collective voices to advocate for systemic change.

Over the past two years, passionate Malawians have taken to the streets across the country to call for a plastic bag ban. This is their captivating story, told through the eyes of Christian, activist, and ecology lecturer, Dr Tiwonge Mzumara-Gawa.

“Life in Malawi is quiet and it’s slow. It’s easy-going. We’re a small country with a lot of people. We’re known to be very friendly people in Malawi; we’re known to be the warm heart of Africa. 

“There’s a young population, with a growing economy. Social media and access to the Internet has opened up a lot of things for Malawi, so we’re changing, but we’re also very traditional in the way we do things. 

“We’ve seen how things have changed in Malawi with the coming in of thin plastic bags, which you get for everything in the market. We call them Malawi’s blue flower, because these little, thin, blue bags are just absolutely everywhere.”

Challenges and trials 

In recent years, concern over the environmental and health impacts of Malawi’s very visible plastic pollution problem has been growing. This concern led the government to first legislate a ban on plastic bags back in 2015. However, just months later, a number of powerful plastic manufacturers argued that the ban posed a threat to their business rights, so there was an injunction against the ban’s implementation while the manufacturers sought a judicial review. 

“The issue went to court and the court sat with it with no judgement for over a year. How can a judge sit on a judgement for over a year in a case that was completed?” Dr Tiwonge asks. 

It was this delay and the importance of binding action on plastic pollution that prompted the newly formed Malawi Creation Care Network to focus its efforts on mobilising support for the ban, although admittedly not without reservation. 

“I’m on the committee of the Malawi Creation Care Network, which is a collaboration of organisations including Green Anglicans, Tearfund Malawi and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi. We as a network decided we were going to march in support of judgement in this case, ” Dr Tiwonge says. “But we know that our systems are corrupt and that it can be easy for something like a march to be politicised and stopped. Some people believed we couldn’t do anything about [the thin plastics court ruling]. Some believe judges might be corrupt so we shouldn’t even try. There are a lot of people who just give up and know that you can’t do certain things when you don’t have the connections to make them happen. So it takes a lot to say, ‘No, let’s go ahead.’ It was really tough, but we really saw God go before us and make things happen.”

Charles Bakoko, National Coordinator for the Malawi Creation Care Network, was key in ensuring the march’s success. “We gathered different people with similar interests, those dealing with environmental issues; the churches, environmental organisations, policy organisations, faith-based organisations, youth networks, and academia. We took advantage of what members of the Renew Our World Rubbish Campaign were already doing with other big plastic producing companies. That was an inspiration – if they were doing that, we could also do this in our local context,” Charles says. 

After such a long period of time without judgement, the day before the planned march in June 2018, the High Court released its ruling on the case, upholding the government’s plastic bag ban. 

“We still marched the next day as planned,” Dr Tiwonge asserts, “And we were really amazed at the number of people! Hundreds of people turned up. They came because they really believed in the cause and they were really grateful to be able to spread the message.”

However, just 30 days later, the manufacturers challenged the thin plastic ruling again, suspending the ban with another injunction and appealing the case to the Supreme Court. 

“Going back and forth with the case into court was difficult,” Dr Tiwonge reflects. “As part of the Renew Our World campaign, we got support for a private lawyer who could help with the processes to put this to the Supreme Court of Appeal and fast-track the delayed court ruling. We knew that once we had a judgement from the Supreme Court it would be done.”

Celebrations and prayers

After struggling for years to have the case concluded, in July 2019 the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal decisively upheld the government’s ban on thin plastics. “It was a long court battle, but eventually the Supreme Court ruled in our favour, partly because of our campaigning, partly because we worked with many others, partly because we helped pay for a good lawyer, and partly because of prayer,” says Dr Tiwonge. 

It was a time of excitement, with the decision celebrated with a series of marches attended by hundreds of people across the country. “Multiple marches were organised in celebration of the plastic bag ban, but also in raising awareness about sustainable living and climate change in the lead up to last September’s UN Climate Action Summit. It was really, really exciting! I absolutely enjoyed it!” smiles Dr Tiwonge. 

“Now our prayer is to see one thing: to have the ban implemented. 

“From the beginning we prayed that the Holy Spirit would move the Judge and the Courts to provide the judgement that would be right for the country and that they would not be influenced by the big companies who might pay a lot of money to get the decision they want. 

“We prayed that it would not be possible for them to stop the marches. We prayed for safety because of the political situation. We prayed for our systems to do the right thing.”

For Dr Tiwonge, it was both her profession and her faith that compelled her to take action; “I’m an ecologist and have always had a passion for biodiversity and environmental issues, but I’m also a Christian. So if I don’t try, then what am I doing? 

“The Bible says that Jesus came so that we might have life and life to the full (John 10:10). I encourage people to think of what ‘life to the full’ means. If we are in a polluted society, are we living life to the full? Can we even live life to the full in a polluted environment? I don’t think so. 

“What God calls us to do is go and walk by faith. If we are moved to do something, sometimes it’s God who’s given us that idea, so we’ve got to at least try and do it. We go in with a spirit of faith, believing that the Lord can do this for us, but even if He doesn’t, we’ll still trust in Him. We’ll continue to fight for the causes we believe are just and are right, for the chance for people to live life to the full in a healthy, clean environment, for the mission that He gave us.” 

When we march by faith, we just don’t know how God might surprise us. 

Inspired by Malawi’s mass marches and progress on plastic pollution? If you’re keen to play your part in this growing global movement of Christians taking action against single-use plastic, send an email to Pepsi and Coke and call on multinationals to take responsibility for their plastic waste in developing countries.

If you’re inspired to start a campaign of your own, click here.

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