Awareness about the harm caused by the thin plastic pollution affecting every corner of the earth is a major link connecting global eco warriors. Gloria Majiga-Kamoto is a program officer for the NGO Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy in Malawi, Africa. She led a grassroots movement, campaigning against the plastics industry and succeeding in bringing about a national law in 2019 that banned the production, import, distribution, and use of single-use plastics there. Malawi produces about 75,000 metric tons of plastic a year, and80% of it is a single-use plastic products like plastic packaging, bags, bottles, and cups, so the ban is a major victory against plastic pollution there.
For her important work Gloria won the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize. The Goldman committee recognized that plastic waste has had a major impact on Malawi’s environment, “littering the landscape, clogging waterways and drainage systems, increasing the frequency and severity of dangerous flooding, which creates breeding grounds for mosquitos carrying malaria and sneaking into food supplies. In a study of the community of Mponela, 40% of slaughtered livestock were found to have plastic in their guts. Ingested plastic can cause intestinal blockages, resulting in starvation and death. ”The story of plastic ban in Malawi stretches over many years: Despite winning a national ban on the production, distribution, and importation of thin plastics in 2015, environmental activists in Malawi experienced setback in 2016 when the Malawi Plastics Manufacturing Association appealed the policy, and the court halted implementation of the ban. Gloria realized in 2017 that the government was not taking action to reinstate the plastics ban, so she organized a group of activists to put pressure on the government. She campaigned in the news media and documented livestock killed by plastic consumption. She involved farmers affected by the loss of their cattle in the campaign, bringing in a public interest lawyer to help with the case. The powerful plastics industry fought the ban citing potential loss of jobs which would hurt the nation’s economy, and at the same time sought to extend the court proceedings and keep the stay order in effect. But Gloria fought back the false narrative of jobs vs. environment, rallying public outcry over the government’s failure to act. Through the public debates with plastics industry representatives, she explained the long-term impacts of plastic pollution on Malawi’s environment, livestock, and wildlife, raising public awareness about the importance of theban. After the petition drive, she organized a grassroots march in 2018 to deliver the petition to the courts and pressure the government to reinstate the ban. Despite industry efforts to overturn the ban,and with Gloria’s and other activists’ continuous pressure, in 2019, the High Court ruled in favor of the enforcement of the ban on the production, importation, distribution, and use of thin plastics. The government also ramped up inspections and, in early 2020, closed operations of three companies illegally producing thin plastics, as well as impounded the plastic-making machinery of a company violating the ban.
After winning Goldman Prize, Gloria Majiga-Kamoto became – in her own words, “the plastic girl…one that everybody sends pictures to if they see plastic pollution anywhere.... So, it’s a bit mortifying because it also sort of reminds you how little progress you’re actually making.... I think it’s given me more of a sense of responsibility to say, what more can I do? The whole point of the ban, the whole point of setting up the cleanup initiative, was to say that once the ban is in place, we come together as a country and clean up…. We organized a cleanup with support from the Goldman Prize funds. And what we did was when we gathered all the plastics, we took them straight to a plastic company, because we said: We don’t know what to do with this waste. So, you tell us what to do with it. You continue producing it, so take it back!...We’ll do that for every single cleanup. We’re taking it back to the plastic manufacturers because we don’t want it. …You have to do something about it. And I think that showed them that we’re watching and we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen.
I know globally, there’s been a campaign to break free from plastic. We’re not the only country facing this challenge. This is a very huge sector. It’s got huge profits. They’ve got money, they’ve got more than we will ever have. But we have got the power and I think that’s the most important lesson of all…getting people to be aware that waste has a life cycle, and we are part of that life cycle to the end of it.” Gloria’s work connects to work of activists in our own community striving to reduce plastic pollution by both participating in clean-ups of our rivers, parks, and bay, as well as joining legislative efforts to reduce use of single-use plastics (California has become the first state to prohibit grocery stores from providing single-use, non-compostable bags to shoppers before they reach the checkout counter. The ban is set to go into effect on January 1, 2025.)