There are pieces of it everywhere. In our oceans, our soils, our water supplies. It’s in the air we breathe and even in the food we eat.
Once hailed as a miracle material, plastic is now slowly choking our waterways, landscapes and ecosystems. The prevalence of plastic waste is so staggering that some comparisons that have been used to describe it are almost beyond comprehension. Did you know, for example, that the sea is thought to contain some 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy?
In Southern Africa, one of the world’s poorest and smallest nations is on the brink of taking a huge leap forwards in the fight against this global environmental scourge.
On 16 April 2019, Malawi’s Supreme Court will decide whether to reinstate a national ban on thin plastics - a ban that was first introduced in 2015 but subsequently halted by an injunction secured by 14 plastics companies in 2016, which argued that the ban would infringe their business rights.
The decision is momentous for a number of reasons. First, it is a chance for the country to bring its laws in line with public opinion. A survey conducted last week showed that 95% of people believe that plastic pollution is a serious issue in Malawi, and 94% of people support the ban.
Second, addressing plastic pollution is critical to Malawi’s social and economic development, and a ban would be a critical part of this achieving this. An independent assessment commissioned by UNDP on the case for banning plastics in Malawi found that “the future environmental, social and economic costs associated with single-use plastics are likely to be much higher than the costs of preventing the production and use of single-use plastics today.” This finding reflects other evidence showing the heavy financial toll taken by plastic pollution. In 2014, for example, the UN Environment Programme estimated that globally, the environmental damage caused by plastic pollution costs $40 billion per year in “natural capital losses”.
Take Lake Malawi as an example. Plastic pollution poses a major threat to the lake’s status as a World Heritage Site, with significant economic costs to the tourism industry as a result of loss in aesthetic value. Damage to marine life as a result of plastic waste is also likely to have serious consequences for fishery stocks and production - a serious concern given that many Malawian livelihoods are linked to the fisheries of Lake Malawi and other floodplain wetlands.
As one of the poorest nations in the world, Malawi can ill afford to ignore the financial and environmental perils of plastic pollution, especially given that rapid urbanisation, coupled with changing consumer demands, is driving further escalation of plastic production in the country. It is estimated that by 2030 the amount of plastic waste generated in the capital city, Lilongwe, will be close to 32,000 tonnes - more than double that in 2014.
Third, a ban on thin plastics would bring Malawi into the fold of a rising global movement that is being led by its African brothers and sisters. Of the 32 countries around the world that have banned plastic bags, over half are in Africa.
The Government of Malawi has already shown itself to be capable of taking bold action to protect the environment - in recent years, for example, it has implemented a number of progressive measures to combat illegal wildlife trade. If the Government’s original ban is upheld by the Supreme Court, the move will cement Malawi’s position as an emerging leader on conservation in Africa
 The assessment was undertaken by South African consultancy Anchor Environmental, with technical support from Malawian conservation organisation Lilongwe Wildlife Trust.
Download a summary of the independent assessment here
Read more about Lilongwe Wildlife Trust’s campaign to #BeatPlasticPollution in Malawi.