In June 2021, NPR profiled Gloria Majiga-Kamoto from Malawi, who saw goats die after eating plastic bags and decided to take on his country’s plastics industry. Cheap, single-use plastic is such a problem in Malawi that in 2015 the government instituted a ban on thin plastic. But before the ban could go into effect, the country’s powerful plastics industry filed an injunction. That was until Majiga-Kamoto, who works for a local environmental organization, came along, organizing rallies and protest marches. In 2019, the nation’s High Court of Justice finally ruled in favor of the ban. in 2021 Won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for your work. So what has happened to you in the last year?
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Gloria Majiga-Kamoto says that in the past year she has become, in her words, “the plastic girl.” We caught up with her in Blantyre, the financial capital of Malawi, to get an update on the thin plastic ban and learn about her new tactics to combat plastic pollution around the world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does it mean to be ‘the plastic girl’?
Being ‘the plastic girl’ is being that person everyone sends photos to if they see plastic pollution anywhere. [Laughs] Or they are labeling me in everything. So it’s a bit mortifying because it also reminds you how little progress you’re actually making. The thing about politics is, when it’s in place, you almost think everything is going to magically work out, right? But it’s very slow progress and sometimes being caught up in the moment, slow motion, is a bit frustrating. You want to wake up today and know that things are so different. That has been a bit overwhelming for me personally. I think it’s given me more of a sense of responsibility to say, ‘What else can I do?’
The purpose of the law was to ban the manufacture of thin plastic in Malawi. But it seems that there are still thin plastic producers operating in the country. What is happening with you and your followers?
Now we are back in court. There has been a request for judicial review by one of the [plastic] companies with the commercial courts, which is crazy because this issue was resolved in the Supreme Court.
What [the plastic companies] are in dispute is the list of plastics that have been banned. So because that list is [being] reviewed [the government] it cannot target businesses. Right now the government can only target plastic dealers and users, which is a very difficult thing to do because these are just local Malawians.
We have been asking the president to take action because we can no longer use the courts. [Earlier this month] we had a national cleanup day for civil society organizations. We took a stand and said, ‘We’re not going to participate in the cleanup because we can’t keep cleaning up someone else’s mess.’ The goal of the ban, the goal of establishing the cleanup initiative, was to say that once the ban is in force, we come together as a country and clean up.
But if we keep producing plastics and keep saying that people should go out and clean up, it’s not fair because we’re cleaning up other people’s mess and [the manufacturers are] taking advantage of it!
So now you’re not participating in government-sponsored cleanups and demonstrations as a symbol of your frustration with the government.
yes In fact, we have so far refused to participate in the national cleanup campaigns, starting this month until the president makes a very clear statement about the need for the judiciary to address this issue once and for all. on the application of the ban.
Basically, you don’t want the government to do greenwashing.
Nope. [Laughs] You know, we’re done.
I feel that if you are ‘the plastic girl’, people all over the world look to you for guidance on how to combat plastic pollution in their countries. So I’m wondering, can you give people some ideas about what you’ve learned?
We organized a cleanup with the support of Goldman Prize funds. And what we did was when we rounded up all the plastics, we took them directly to a plastics company, because we said, ‘us I don’t know what to do with this waste. So your tell us what to do with it. It continues to produce it, so remove it!
We’ll do that for each individual cleanup. We are sending it back to the plastic manufacturers because we don’t want it. And we don’t know what to do with it. Do not give us the task of writing proposals to reach projects that are going to be recycled, because we cannot. You something has to be done about it. And I think that [taking plastic waste back to the plastic companies] I showed them that we are watching and waiting to see what is going to happen.
I know that globally there has been a campaign to become plastic free. We are not the only country facing this challenge. This is a very large sector. He has big profits. They have money, they have more than us will ever have. but us I have the power and I think that’s the most important lesson of all.
So when you returned the plastic to them, they took it away?
They were very reluctant, but we went there with the media and then they had to back down. We don’t know what they did with it, but it was such a strong statement.
I think their fear was that if they took it, everyone would start taking all their plastic in the cleanups. And that is exactly what we want! [Laughs.]
So we’ve been trying to tell people that if you’re doing a cleanup, you need to have a plan for your plastics because you can’t put it in the landfill. That kind of pressure is showing [the thin plastic manufacturers] that we will not go back.
It’s like showing hypocrisy, how you can’t really recycle a lot of plastic.
What is your next goal?
We still have work to do on plastics. i mean even [if] the ban goes back into effect, there will still be a lot of work to get people to change. We are working on a TV show called talc residue, should air next month. It’s just 10 minutes every day, a conversation about the types of waste you experience. Making people understand what waste is, how they can best manage it, who they can take it to, and the amazing people managing our waste on our behalf.
So you’re targeting human behavior in addition to targeting manufacturers.
I feel like one of the challenges that we have is a disconnect, once you launch [plastic] in the container you disconnect from it.
So I always ask people, if we’re in a meeting and they have a plastic bottle, I’m like, “After you use that bottle, can you imagine meeting that bottle again? Like you have your name on it and you know each other.” “. inside an animal or, you know, in the most awkward place, in a fish, in a beautiful lake when you’re swimming with your family and then you see your bottle wash up on the shore towards you?” So making people be aware that waste has a life cycle and we are part of that life cycle until the end.
Julia Simon is a regular contributor to NPR’s podcasts and news sections, focusing on climate change, energy, and business news.