UNEP would like to thank the World Resources Institute, Duke University and the University of Strathclyde for their invaluable assistance with the collation of these case-studies.


Plastic Pollution in Malawi

Plastic pollution poses a major global threat to humans and the environment. At the present rate of population growth under a business-as-usual model, plastics production is estimated to double within the next 20 years (Lebreton 2019). Due to high population densities in Asia and Africa, coastal communities in these regions produce a disproportionate amount of plastic waste (Lebreton 2019). In sub-Saharan Africa, only about 44% of waste is collected (Turpie et al. 2019). As of 2018, the population growth rate in sub-Saharan Africa is 3.55%, with projected urbanization rates from 2.5-3.5% a year (Turpie et al. 2019). Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to become the world’s fastest-growing region, which only increases the rates of waste generation (Turpie et al. 2019). In Malawi, the total waste generation is projected to increase by 33% by 2050, and the total waste generation could triple by 2050 (Turpie et al. 2019). To be more specific, Lebreton and Andrady (2019) predicted that total municipal plastic waste production in Malawi will be 508,000 metric tons per year in 2060. However, approximately 280,000 tons of solid waste today remains uncollected in urban areas each year (Turpie et al. 2019).

The four main cities in Malawi (Lilongwe, Blantyre, Zomba, and Mzuzu) have around 1.5 million population, and generate more than 1000 tons in solid waste per day (Turpie et al. 2019). According to studies, the waste management system and public awareness are inadequate to cope with the amount of waste generated in Malawi (Turpie et al. 2019). These problems will only be exacerbated as Malawi’s population grows, the country becomes more urbanized, and the economy shifts to have more people in the middle-class.

As Malawi’s economy grows, the nature of consumption is changing to use more single-use and hard to recycle plastics. For example, the sale of consumer goods is shifting from street vendors and small business to supermarket chains and department stores, increasing the use of single – use plastics (SUPs) (Turpie et al. 2019). In addition to overall shift, informal traders (such as street vendors) are switching to thinner plastic bags, and beverage industries are switching from returnable glass bottles to plastic bottles-- all of which are increasing Malawi’s total waste generation (Turpie et al. 2019). Malawi also has increasing water quality concerns, so many residents are using plastic water bottles for clean water (Turpie et al. 2019). Further, households in high income areas generate more than seven times the plastic waste of those in low-income areas (Turpie et al. 2019). In low-income areas, the waste generation rate is 0.20 kg per capita per day, however the waste generation rate in high income areas is 0.51 kg per capita per day (Turpie et al. 2019).  However, it is worth noting that this is not necessarily the trend everywhere. For example, research in Kenya suggested the opposite, that households in lower income areas generate more waste than high income areas (Omondi and Asari, 2021).

As household consumption of plastic increases, waste management and collection rates are staying stagnant, and remain insufficient to address waste in Malawi (Kalina et al., 2021). In Malawi, only 42% of waste is collected properly (and this is considered an overestimate) (Turpie et al. 2019). Approximately 12% of waste is thrown on roadsides, 9% thrown on river-sides, and 9% is thrown in dumpsters, meaning a lot of waste is able to enter the environment. (Kasinja and Tilley, 2018). With no proper landfills, waste collected by cities is taken to open dumpsites (Kasinja and Tilley, 2018).

Due to the overwhelming waste problem, private initiatives have begun to apply for licenses to operate as a private waste collection facility (Turpie et al. 2019). For example, more than 45 companies have applied for licenses (Turpie et al. 2019). These companies charge a weekly fee ranging from MWK50/kg to MWK300/kg of plastics (USD$0.061/kg to USD$0.37/kg of plastics) to households for daily or weekly collection and disposal (Turpie et al. 2019).

Likewise, some local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate individual projects for waste collection in major cities such as Lilongwe and Blantyre (Barre, 2014). For example, in 2010, various community-based organizations (CBOs), NGOs, private, and public sectors created a project, Waste for Wealth (W4W), where participating organizations made compost out of organic waste collected in the street by women (Barre, 2014).  It is important to note that this project is solely an example of private sectors engaging with waste collection practice: this targets organic waste and does not alleviate the plastics problem.

Another mechanism for waste control is Informal Waste Pickers (IWPs), who mostly collect plastics and other types of waste that have been disposed in urban areas (Kasinja and Tilley 2018). IWPs are defined as “individuals, groups, or micro-enterprises that collect, sort, transform, or process recyclable materials that are not financed or recognized by solid waste authorities” (Kasinja and Tilley, 2018). On average, one IWP can recover up to 9 kg of plastic waste per day (Kasinja and Tilley, 2018). Though extremely important in their role in waste collection and proper disposal, IWPs are usually subject to marginalization and rarely recognized for their contribution (Kasinja and Tilley, 2018). This trend is common in many other countries in Sub-Saharan African and Asia. After interviewing 42 IWPs in Zingwanga, Kasinja and Tilley found that IWPs were selling the plastic materials they recovered for less than the mean price (184 Mk/kg) and that there was a disincentive against recovering dyed plastics since most industries do not buy them.

Though sometimes people in urban areas tend to burn their waste or dump it in the streets, the most common waste management practice in Malawi is reuse (Barre, 2014). Reuse practices in Malawian households are diverse: most waste items get reused multiple times before being discarded (Kalina et al.,2021). Research has shown that the overwhelming motivator for reusing items is economic incentive, because it is cheaper to reuse a product than to buy a new one that does the same function (Kalina et al., 2021). In cities like Chembe, residents sometimes earn income from collecting, reselling, repurposing, and even creating crafts from reused products (Kalina et al., 2021). The items that are reused the most are broken water basins, cement bags, and used maize sacks (Kalina et al., 2021). For example, villagers will reuse items for different functions, depending on what is needed in the home: water basins to flowerpots, maize sacks to woven art, plastic drink bottles to store oil, or using mosquito nets to dry fish (Kalina et al., 2021). There is also a localized plastics recycling industry. In an interview with managers at local recycling companies Shore Rubber and Plastico Industry, managers stated that 40-60% of waste collected or bought is recycled to make new items (Barre, 2014). 

Malawi has ample legislation dedicated to combatting the waste generation and inadequate infrastructure problem generally; however, despite many attempts, there is only one national policy and zero subnational policies targeting plastic pollution specifically. These policies call for improved waste management and recycling initiatives, however there are no current hard laws such as bans or levies. These policies are more affirmative, such as planning to commit to developing a stronger waste management sector or recycling techniques. The Malawian government has been attempting to implement a stronger plastic bag ban, given the success of SUP-bans in neighboring countries such as Rwanda, however efforts have been consistently legally challenged by plastic manufacturers and eventually overturned (Bezerra et al. 2021). For example, Malawi’s first attempt to implement policy to directly ban plastic bags was met with opposition from the Plastics Manufacturers Association of Malawi (PMAM) (Turpie et al. 2019). Between 1990-2015, Malawi imported one billion USD worth of plastic, furthering PMAM’s argument that a plastic bag ban would have a drastic effect on Malawian economy (Babayemi et al., 2019). Despite legal battles, as of 2021, the ban finally became active (Bezerra et al. 2021).   


Malawi Legislation to Address Plastic Pollution

Environmental Management Act (1996)

The Environmental Management Act (EMA) of 1996 states that any land affected by waste disposal sites needs to be restored (EMA, 1996). To handle waste properly, the Act states that any waste should be removed and disposed of properly, so as not to endanger the environment (EMA, 1996). This act prohibits littering in public places and designates that the Minister of the Environmental Affairs Department oversees creating waste management standards and controlling the handling, storage, transportation, classification, importation, exportation, and destruction of waste (EMA, 1996). This act also bans anyone from handling, transporting, or storing waste without a license. Anyone who does not dispose of waste that is in accordance with the act will be liable to a fine of 1,000,000 Malawian Kwacha ($2582 USD) (EMA, 1996). 

Environmental Management (Waste Management and Sanitation) Regulations (2008)

The Environmental Management (Waste Management and Sanitation) Regulations expands on the Environmental Management Act and National Environment Policy of 2004 that states that every person has a right to a clean and healthy environment and has the duty to promote and maintain a clean environment (Turpie et al., 2019). The Regulations in 2008 specifically provide updated waste management and sanitation programs (Turpie et al., 2019), including listing plastics as a material that can be recycled and states that everyone has the duty to properly dispose of all litter (Environmental Management (Waste Management and Sanitation) Regulations, 2008). The regulations require that anyone who owns a recycling facility to have a license granted by the Director of Environmental Affairs (Environmental Management (Waste Management and Sanitation) Regulations, 2008).

Environmental Management (Plastics) Regulations (2015)

The Environmental Management (Plastics) Regulations bans the importation, manufacture, trade, and commercial distributions of plastic bags/sheets that are less than 60 micrometers in thickness (Environmental Management (Plastics) Regulations, 2015). However, commonly used plastics are exempt from this ban such as plastics meant for food packaging, medicine or veterinary products, laundry dry cleaning bags, and plastics used for waste storage (Environmental Management (Plastics) Regulations, 2015). Each bag will need to have printed on it the name of the manufacturer and the thickness of the bag (Environmental Management (Plastics) Regulations, 2015).

In 2016, the Plastics Manufacturers Association of Malawi (PMAM) appealed to the High Court to restrain the government from implementing the ban and to review the ban (Turpie et al., 2019). PMAM was strongly against the ban because they considered it to threaten their industry business, claiming it would lead to job loss (Turpie et al., 2019).  According to PMAM, considering that Malawi is low-income country, development opportunities are highly valued, and to ban the production of thin plastics would be a direct hit on plastic manufacturing jobs (Turpie et al., 2019). Three years later, the case went to the Supreme Court, but the court dismissed the appeal to stop the ban on plastics. Therefore, Malawi’s thin plastic bag ban is currently in place (Pensulo, 2020). Evidence has shown that the government is committed to enforcing this ban. For example, in 2020, two companies (OG Plastics and City Plastics) were found still manufacturing plastic bags despite the ban and were forced to close (Pensulo, 2020). At the same time, local environment groups are still calling for more enforcement on the ground because plastics are still being seen on the market (Pensulo, 2020). As of 2021, the government has plans to review the regulations to make it a complete ban of single – use plastics (Princewill, 2021).

Policy Effectiveness

Though Malawi governments and stakeholders have demonstrated a commitment to creating policy addressing plastic pollution more directly, our literature review found articles focusing on the development of the thin plastics ban and the conflict it created, with no detail on the effectiveness of any policy on reducing plastic pollution. Though it seems that Malawi is starting to make a stronger effort to target plastic pollution specifically and eventually ban all plastic bags, our researchers were unable to find any new policies or ones being drafted as of August 2021. This makes it extremely difficult to gauge the effectiveness of these Malawian policies and assess them accordingly.


Madison Griffin, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Rachel Karasik, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

John Virdin, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions




Thanks go to the UNDP Ocean Innovation Challenge for their generous support of this work.



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