The future remains plastic.


I’ve previously written about the ban on thin plastic bags in Malawi, which came into effect in June this year. At the time, I noted that it was a seriously forward move for the country, where plastic litter can be found all over the capital. Except that it wasn’t.

Initially, it seemed some changes were being made: my local supermarket, Chipiku, had signs up explaining the ban, and sold customers heavy-duty plastic bags to put their groceries in. Alas, that did not last. Only a week or so after the (supposed) ban, Chipiku and other stores were back at eagerly packing my items into multiple, free, thin plastic bags. What went wrong?

Local newspaper The Nation today reports that an industry appeal to the (then) Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management in March 2014 won them a year’s reprieve. Plastics manufacturers argued that the ban would have an adverse impact on their industry, and that they were setting up a plastics recycling plant to help reduce plastic waste. The Minister was swayed: “Considering the issues you have raised and actions proposed towards production of biodegradable plastics, investment in recycling machines, and commencement of social programmes to reduce indiscriminate production and use of thin plastics, it has been necessary to extend the commencement date of commencing the ban to 30 June 2015.”

This happened well before the ban was announced. So why then was the ban announced at all? According to The Nation, political in-fighting seems to have been the culprit. While the (then) Minister give the industry reprieve, the (then) Principal Secretary went ahead and launched the ban. Enter: confusion.

The ultimate loser in the saga is the environment. While the plastics industry’s claims to commence recycling of plastics and manufacturing of biodegradable products are positive, initial announcement followed by half-hearted retraction of the ban shows just how weak the government is in enforcing its own policies and legislation. Sadly, that leaves little hope that the ban will be compellingly revived in 2015.


urban_net #4: Land reform, community mobilisation, and waste management.

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The fourth urban_net meeting took place today at the ActionAid office in Lilongwe, featuring three presentations. First up was Harun Aubi Juma, a Masters student at Chancellor College, presenting a political economy analysis of (lack of) land reform in Malawi. Juma outlined how land reform was initially initiated at the start of multi-party democracy in 1994, but that since has stalled and while the Land Bill was passed last year, it is still to be enacted. “Land reform in Malawi is caught in competing objectives between the state and private sector on one hand and local communities on the other,” he argued, noting how the poor are the losers in this scenario and how the scarcity of land in rural areas pushes people to migrate to urban areas, resulting in the profileration of unplanned settlements.

The second presentation, by CCODE intern Eleonore Dupre, featured research findings on community mobilisation and participation in community projects in Kauma, a large poor settlement in Lilongwe. Key findings included that poverty and the need to make a living can trump participation in community development projects, and that when individuals participate, the motivation for doing so often centres on the individual benefit gained from the project, such as a daily allowance, as opposed to the common benefit. Dupre also found that there was a general lack of awareness of many development projects, as well as that newcomers to the settlement often felt excluded. Nevertheless, respondents indicated an overall sense of well-being.

The final presentation, by ActionAid and LUPPEN Advisor Nora Lindstrom, looked at waste management in poor areas of Lilongwe. Lindstrom showed how the city’s poor settlements are significantly under-served by municipal waste collection services, leading to harmful practices such as burning and dumping waste. She noted that part of the reason for this lies in that the City Council does not have adequate resources to manage waste in the city, which in turn has led to the proliferation of (illegal) private waste management services who collect waste for a fee from the city’s wealthier residents and subsequently appear to dump it in poor communities. Composting, if done properly, was highlighted as an effective waste management strategy given that over 70% of waste in Lilongwe is estimated to be organic.

The next urban_net meeting will take place on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2014 – join us!

Malawi bans bags – of the plastic variety

Waste in Mwynekondo settlement in Lilongwe.

Waste in Mwynekondo settlement in Lilongwe.

In a seriously forward move, Malawi’s Ministry of Energy, Mining, and Natural Resources has banned the production and import of plastic material of a less than 60 micron thickness. Kudos. In a country with pathetic waste collection services but where the majority of waste is organic, this represents an important step in the right direction. Partly, it will hopefully help in reducing overall inorganic waste, and the negative impacts resulting from the common practice of burning or dumping waste. But also (fingers crossed), it may make for cleaner compost; many urban households bury their waste and later use it in their fields, but sadly rarely sort their waste prior to burying it.

Not everyone has been happy about the development, however. Plastic bag vendors have decried their loss of income as a result of the sudden ban, with one widowed vendor saying “At this point, I am hopeless since I have been doing this business for eight years, this small shop is the only thing my husband left for my family. My children’s food, clothes and school fees come from it, the ban has left me clueless as on what will come out of our future.” (As quoted in MANA Online) In response to the backlash, the government last week announced a two-week reprieve on the ban.

There are question marks over exactly how (and/or for how long) the plastics ban is going to be monitored and implemented, particularly in the country’s extensive informal economy. It is also evident that there was limited consultation on the law, resulting in unnecessary negative press for what is essentially a positive move for the the country. The good news is, however, that if the Malawian government is serious about minimising waste there are plenty of more ways to do it – just make sure you get the public on board.

Result: Waste collection following advocacy.

Did a mere monitoring visit scare Lilongwe City Council into taking action?

This is a picture of waste build up by a city-provided skip in one of the markets in Mchesi settlement in Lilongwe. The picture was taken on Jul. 22, 2014, when I visited the area together with the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network (LUPPEN).


This wasn’t the first time we’d been to Mchesi and seen (and smelt) the site. During our February visit, we similarly witnessed waste build up, but also came upon Lilongwe City Council workers (featured in the picture) who told us they were looking into how to address the issue.


During our Jul. 22 visit, residents in the area told us that the situation did in fact improve for a while after February. Specifically, it improved until the May 20 tri-partite elections. Since then however, no waste had been collected.

Until Jul. 25 that is. A few days after witnessing large-scale waste build up by the market, we visited Mchesi again, and were surprised to find the City Council in the process of removing the waste. While they were not using standard waste removal vehicles, you can spot the Council’s logo on the front of the tractor:


It seems that the local authorities got wind of our earlier visit in July, and wanted to avoid complaints from LUPPEN, so they took action.

Of course, what Mchesi really needs – and is entitled to – is regular waste removal by the City Council. This however is not forthcoming for at least two reasons: one, the City does not have the required resources to effectively manage waste in the whole city, and two, because Mchesi is a poor area (wealthier areas get serviced). To get proper waste collection services to Mchesi and other similar areas there is a need for the City Council to attach more importance, and therefore funds, to waste management in the city, as well as ensure all of Lilongwe’s residents benefit from its waste collection services equally. Still, this represents a little victory that deserves to be celebrated.

Bye bye food.

Nice post by Make Wealth History drawing attention to a new World Bank report on the amount of food that is wasted and lost globally. The essence is that lots of food is wasted in developed countries, while food is lost (due to poor infrastructure etc.) in developing countries. Also worth bearing in mind when looking at the above graph is of course that way more people live in developing countries than developed ones…

Waste pickers, I salute thee.


Today is Global Waste Picker Day and I want to express my love and admiration. Waste pickers play an incredibly important role in keeping cities clean, and contribute substantially to sustainability by recycling every last little (valuable) bit of someone else’s rubbish. They deserve to be celebrated.

When I lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where there is no formal recycling, I could put my recyclables in a plastic bag by the road, safe in the knowledge that an etchai (recycler/waste picker) would pick them up.

Unfortunately in Lilongwe, Malawi, where many people (including myself) live in gated communities or guarded compounds, recycling is not that easy, and I’m still to work out the best way to get rid of my tins, plastic, and wine bottles. (Beer bottles are re-used as Carlsberg – locally known as ‘Green’- is bottled here.) I most definitely miss the etchai.

The sad thing is that waste pickers are often discriminated against, as people who are doing a ‘dirty job’. The thing is, they are doing YOUR dirty job. And you, and I, should be thankful. These are people who are risking their lives on a daily basis (going through someone else’s rubbish is not good for your health), and we should respect that.

So I salute you waste pickers. And I think it’s high time your demands for recognition are heard – as very well articulated by the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers.