Gloria Majiga-Kamoto never intended to lead an environmental revolution in Malawi. Her focus was on agriculture, and helping farmers adapt to climate change in one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to drought and other impacts. But during her time on farms, an even more immediate concern became unavoidable: A tidal wave of plastic trash covering the landscape.
Malawi is home to a number of plastics factories, and in 2016, when Majiga-Kamoto first noticed the problem, they were churning out 75,000 tons of plastic every year, 80% of which was single-use. Plastic waste choked waterways, created breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and could be deadly to roving livestock.
“We had people sending in pictures from all different areas of Malawi, and they were all just so heavily polluted,” she said. “It was really quite shocking for me.”
What was especially shocking was that none of this should have been a problem. In 2015, Malawi joined dozens of its peers across the African continent in cracking down on single-use plastics by banning them outright. But under opposition from industry groups, Malawi’s ban was tied up in court. So Majiga-Kamoto started networking with other concerned activists. Together, they organized protest marches, debated industry representatives on television, and raised money for a legal campaign. All that work paid off: In July 2019, Malawi’s top court upheld the ban. A year later, it had shut down three factories illegally producing single-use plastics and impounded the equipment of a fourth.
On June 15, Majiga-Kamoto was one of six environmentalists from around the globe honored with the prestigious, Goldman Environmental Prize, an annual award for grassroots activists nicknamed the “Green Nobel.” She spoke with Quartz about her strategy for taking on Malawi’s plastics industry, drumming up public support for slow-burn environmental issues, and what she hopes to see from the industry in the future. This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
How did you first come to focus on plastics?
I was working on a sustainable agriculture project, and we kept having this experience where quite a few of the goats would ingest plastics. They were left out in the field to graze, and they would die. That was one of the biggest problems we had. I realized there wouldn’t be a way to address this challenge only through our advocacy on livestock. So that’s how I became interested in the work that was being done at the time on single-use plastics. And at that time, there was a ban [on the books in Malawi], and we thought, “Oh yeah, we have a ban, so this problem is going to end.” But then everyone realized the ban wouldn’t work because the plastics companies are against it, and it wasn’t being enforced. [The companies] were trying to say that they make a huge economic contribution and that this ban was a violation of their economic rights.
Plastics form a large part of the economy of many African countries, even if their use is restricted. What was your strategy for taking on those companies in Malawi? You joined a legal case to get the ban enforced, right?
I’m not a huge fan of protests. I tend to prefer conversation, trying to reason together, but in this case, it was clear that wasn’t going to work. Throughout the campaign, we tried to talk with companies and hear what they think we should be doing as a country. And we just couldn’t get through to them. They say, “We’re a huge contributor to the economy, we pay taxes, we’re providing a service, people need plastic.” But that taught me that the things they care about are not the things we care about in our communities. You want to be able to create an environment where everyone thrives. If it’s just one person or one company thriving, it’s not the kind of world we should aspire to be building.
So we got a lawyer, we organized a Go-Fund-Me. And then we organized a march on the courts, because we felt that the government just wasn’t hearing us. We were saying that we shouldn’t just think about this from the economic perspective, which is what the companies wanted to do.
It took several years, and a series of setbacks and false starts, for the ban to finally be upheld in court. How did you maintain momentum and the attention of the public during that time?
It was really frustrating, and we had many moments where I thought this is never going to happen. You think, “Oh, it’s just me, or it’s just ten of us, in a country of 70 million people, and I don’t care anymore.” And I definitely felt very guilty, because I’m also someone who uses plastic. So first I had to think about how I could change my own lifestyle and become more aware of the choices I make. You can realize you’re part of the problem, but you have a part to play in the solution.
Then it’s about showing people the challenge in a way they can relate to. A lot of farmers could absolutely relate to having lost a goat or finding plastic ingested by their livestock. If we talk about carbon emissions, they won’t relate. I’ve always had a problem with being labeled as an environmentalist, because it’s really about people and understanding what people need. They need plastic, so how do you help them understand that this is a problem that affects not only you but a lot of people, and not just today but in the long run? Finally, people need to appreciate that their voice is the only one that matters. What’s missing for us to make the change that we need is just to recognize the power we have.
Even as more African countries adopt bans on single-use plastics, plastic pollution remains a major problem, in part because there yet many good alternatives to common sources of pollution like water sachets. What needs to happen next?
When people see they have a role to play, there’s a cultural shift that happens. We need to get to a place where we’re not just changing consumer patterns but promoting more sustainable alternatives. The ban is only as effective as we as citizens allow it to be, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We can do a lot more to get bigger corporations to commit to extended responsibility for their part of the mess. It’s going to be costly to clean up this mess, and right now it’s the citizens who have to pay that cost. I’m not willing to stand by and watch that happen. There needs to be more action on taking companies to task on being part of the solution, because ultimately the cost of reversing the damage is so much more than what they pay in taxes.
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