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Whatever happened to the Malawian anti-plastic activist inspired by goats?

Gloria Majiga-Kamoto, an activist from Malawi, was one of six recipients of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize. Majiga-Kamoto has been campaigning to convince Malawi to implement a ban on thin plastics.
Goldman Environmental Prize
Gloria Majiga-Kamoto, an activist from Malawi, was one of six recipients of the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize. Majiga-Kamoto has been campaigning to convince Malawi to implement a ban on thin plastics.

In June 2021, NPR profiled Gloria Majiga-Kamoto of Malawi, who saw goats dying after eating plastic bags and decided to take on her nation's plastic industry. Cheap, single-use plastic is such a problem in Malawi that in 2015 the government instituted a thin plastic ban. But before the ban could go into effect, the country's powerful plastic industry filed an injunction. That's until Majiga-Kamoto, who works for a local environmental organization, came along, organizing protest rallies and marches. In 2019 the nation's High Court finally ruled in favor of the ban. In 2021 she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work. So what's happened to her in the last year?

Gloria Majiga-Kamoto says in the past year she's become – in her words – "the plastic girl." We reached her in Blantyre, the financial capital of Malawi, to get an update on the thin plastic ban, and hear about her new tactics for fighting plastic pollution around the world. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Volunteers with Art Malawi, a local arts organization, clean plastic litter and debris from the Mudi River in Blantyre, Malawi. Volunteers worked for months to clean up the river.
/ Art Malawi/Mudi River Cleanup
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Art Malawi/Mudi River Cleanup
Volunteers with Art Malawi, a local arts organization, clean plastic litter and debris from the Mudi River in Blantyre, Malawi. Volunteers worked for months to clean up the river.

What does being 'the plastic girl' mean?

Being 'the plastic girl' is being that one person that everybody sends pictures to if they see plastic pollution anywhere. [Laughs] Or they're tagging me in everything. So it's a bit mortifying because it also sort of reminds you how little progress you're actually making. The thing with policy is, when it's in place, you almost think everything is just going to magically work out, right? But it's very slow progress and sometimes, to be sort of stuck in the moment, the slow motion, it's a bit frustrating. You want to wake up today and know that things are so different. That's been a bit overwhelming for me personally. I think it's given me more of a sense of responsibility to say, 'What more can I do?'

The point of the law was to ban the manufacturing of thin plastic in Malawi. But it seems there are still thin plastic producers operating in the country. What's going on with you and your supporters?

We've now gone back to the courts. There's been a judicial review application 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 contesting is the list of the plastics that have been banned. So because that list is [being] reviewed [the government] cannot target the companies. Right now the government can only target the distributors and the users of plastic, which is a very difficult thing to do because these are just local Malawians.

We've been calling for the president to take action because we can't keep on using the courts. [Earlier this month] we had the national cleanup day for civil society organizations. We took a stand and said, 'We're not participating in the cleanup because we cannot keep cleaning up somebody else's mess." 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.

But if we continue to produce plastics and then we still say people should come out and clean up, it's not fair because we are cleaning up somebody else's mess and [the manufacturers are] making a profit off of it!

So you're now not participating in government-sponsored cleanups and demonstrations as a symbol of your frustration with the government.

Yes. As of now we've actually refused to take part in the national cleanup campaigns, from this month until the president makes a very clear statement on the need for the judiciary to address this issue once and for all. We need him to make a directive on the implementation of the ban.

You don't want the government greenwashing, basically.

No. [Laughs] You know, we're done.

I feel like, if you're 'the plastic girl', people around 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 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. And we don't know what to do with it. Don't give us the task of writing proposals to come up with projects that are going to recycle, because we can't. You have to do something about it. And I think that [taking plastic waste back to the plastic companies] 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.

So when you gave them back the plastic, did they take it?

They were so reluctant, but we went there with media and then they had to take it back. We don't know what they did with it, but it was such a strong statement.

I think their fear was that if they take it, then everybody starts taking all of their plastic to them on the cleanups. And that's 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 throw it at the landfill. That kind of pressure is showing [the thin plastic manufacturers] that we're not backing down.

It's kind of showing the hypocrisy, how you really can't recycle a lot of plastic.

Exactly.

What is your next target?

We still have work to do in plastics. I mean, even [if] the ban comes back into full effect, there will still be a lot of work trying to get people to change. We are working on a program for TV called Waste Talk, it should go live on air next month. It's just 10 minutes every day, a conversation on the types of waste that you experience. Get people to understand what waste is, how they can manage it better, who they can actually take it to, and the incredible people that are managing our waste on our behalf.

So you're focusing on human behavior in addition to targeting manufacturers.

I feel like one of the challenges we have is a disconnection — once you throw [plastic] in the bin you get disconnected from it.

So I always ask people, if we're in a meeting and they have a plastic bottle, I say, "After you use that bottle, can you imagine ever meeting that bottle again? Like if you had your name on that and you met it 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 just wash up on the shore toward you. How would you feel?" So getting people to be aware that waste has a life-cycle and we are part of that life cycle to the end of it.

Julia Simon is a regular contributor to NPR's podcasts and news desks, focusing on climate change, energy and business news.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julia Simon