It’s five o’clock in the morning and Agnes Chimkwita is already busy lighting a fire using the plastic bags from buying charcoal and food. The 42-year-old often starts her day the same way: “I strike a matchstick, burn some plastics and heat the charcoals until they catch a fire”. With low-grade charcoal from Malawi’s vanishing forests, Agnes has to burn an entire plastic bag or two to ignite a fire. “At worst, I have to blow the charcoals with my mouth as my nose takes in the dust, fumes and smoke”.
Once the fire has started, Agnes starts cooking for her family before getting ready for work. Agnes’ job is to clean the streets of Blantyre City in Malawi. Reduced plastic waste in the country would make her work easier, while protecting women and girls from the deadly fumes emitted by the smoky charcoal burners.
Agnes lives in a populous village bordering the Chigumula Township, where business captains and policymakers live. But in her area, most homes have no electricity, just like nine out of 10 people in Malawi. People rely on charcoal and firewood for cooking. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that air pollution caused by this cooking energy kills almost four people every eight seconds. Malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS kill fewer. Yet, this crisis haunts three billion people — almost 40% of the world population — who live without clean cooking energy.
In Malawi, overreliance on charcoal and firewood has left forests up in smoke. Hit hard by frequent power blackouts that last over 12 hours, the small east African country now imports charcoal from the neighbouring Mozambique. Malawians, sick and tired of soft-wood charcoal from the vanishing forests, find the blackish imports longer lasting and easier to burn. “With imported charcoal, I burn less plastic. But with the charcoal from our forests, I need more. This often leaves my eyes red due to the smoke and my nose is running. I often suffer from coughs,” says Agnes.
According to official statistics, 97% of Malawi’s population rely on charcoal and firewood. Burning plastic while making fires worsens the health hazards of cooking as the push for Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) — to ensure clean and sustainable energy for all — remains slow.
Four billion people left behind
The 2018 Energy Progress Report released by the World Bank in May this year shows that 2.3 million people will keep using traditional cooking by 2030. “Household air pollution from the use of inefficient stoves paired with charcoal, firewood and kerosene are responsible for some four million deaths a year,” reads the global dashboard of SDG7.
Unfortunately, the widespread burning of plastic bags in Malawi could be fuelling diseases and deaths catalysed by lack of clean cooking energy. It is an indispensable part of the country’s risky cooking culture. It is widely seen as an easy way of getting rid of the rampant waste. “If I don’t burn them, plastic bags will be flying all over the place. Why not just use them to make cooking easier?” asks Alice Makwenda, a mother-of-two based in Blantyre.
The health cost
Burning plastic has grave implications on the environment and public health. When plastics decompose or burn they release chemicals that are hazardous to health, the environment and wildlife. “Some of the chemicals released when plastic-containing waste is burned are carcinogenic, such as dioxin,” warns the World Health Organisation. “Dioxin is toxic to humans and when inhaled through exposure to fumes can accumulate in the human body and be transmitted from mothers to babies via the placenta. Dioxin attached to dust also falls into waterways and crops,” states the international organisation.
According to Malawi’s Ministry of Health, fire-related air pollution in the country causes 13,000 deaths a year.
In 2016, the government banned the production and sale of thin plastics of less than 60-microns, but 13 manufacturers jointly obtained a court order against the ban. On June 14, 2018, the High Court lifted the injunction. The verdict, passed on the eve of a protest march organised by anti-plastic campaigners, has revived the national push for sustainable alternatives to non-reusable plastics. “This is a win for the environment and human health. We urgently need to reduce the production and excessive use of plastic, particularly thin plastics which pollute our lakes, oceans and crop fields,” says Tawonga Mbale-Luka, the director of environmental Affairs in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining.
But thin plastics are still widely on sale. Malawi Environmental Endowment Trust’s (MEET) national coordinator Karen Price calls for cutbacks on all forms of plastics — not just thin ones — to keep the country ‘a little cleaner’ while protecting women, girls and children from health hazards caused by burning plastics when cooking.
The need for mindset change
It takes over 10 centuries for plastics to decompose in landfills. The toxic emissions from burning plastics pile up for up to eight years. Christopher Mwambene, the executive director at Coordination Union for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (CURE) calls for a new way of shopping. “There is need for behavioural change. Oftentimes, we carry plastic materials which we cannot recycle or re-use. Let’s stop using plastic material which we do not need. If we do so, we will save the environment from plastic pollution and families from making fires using plastics,” he says.
This aptly sums up what Agnes finds ‘sickening’ about the plastic-energy nexus. It sometimes leaves her feeling nauseated and with no appetite in the meals she struggles cooking. To her, banning plastics is nothing without expanding access to clean cooking energy. “With many families still using charcoal and firewood, they cannot stop burning plastics in their kitchens. To reduce cooking-related hardships and health concerns, we need clean ways of cooking. We would not be burning plastics if we had electricity and gas.”
James Chavula is a features journalist at Nation Publications Limited in Malawi. He is one of the winners of the Voices of a Brighter Future Journalism competition on sustainable energy reporting organised by the UN-OHRLLS.