Gloria Majiga-Kamoto was named one of six 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winners last week. The Malawian NGO worker has waged a war against single-use plastics and the problems they are causing her country.

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When she was a girl, single-use plastic wasn’t so commonly used, said Majiga-Kamoto, who is 30 years old. “I remember back in the day when we’d go to the market and buy things like fish, like dried fish, you’d get it in newspapers,” she said, as reported by NPR. But over the last 10 or so years, new manufacturers in the landlocked East African country have ramped up production of single-use bags and thin plastics, those measuring less than 60 microns in thickness. According to a 2019 UN Development Program-funded report, Malawi produces about 75,000 metric tons of plastic annually, 80% of which is single-use.

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Gloria Majiga-Kamoto stands near piles of plastic waste

Majiga-Kamoto became aware of the problem while working for a local environmental NGO that provided goats to rural farmers. The idea was that the farmers could use goat dung as organic fertilizer. But the goats’ love of a local snack did them in.

“We have this very common street food. It’s called chiwaya, and it’s just really potato fried on the side of the road, and it’s served in these little blue plastics,” Majiga-Kamoto said. “So because it’s salty, once the goats get a taste of the salt, they just eat the plastic because they can’t really tell that it’s inedible. And they die because it blocks the ingestion system — there’s no way to survive.”

With the goats dying rather than reproducing, the program fell apart, and Majiga-Kamoto became aware of the problems with plastic bags. Not only were they killing goats, but fish and cows were eating plastic, too. The unsightly piles of plastic trash clogging her country’s waterways were breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes and cholera-causing bacteria.

As such, Majiga-Kamoto led a group of environmental activists who battled the powerful plastics-manufacturing industry for several years before finally getting the Malawi High Court to ban single-use thin plastics in 2019.

The Goldman Environmental Prize honors grassroots environmental leaders from around the world. Michael Sutton, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, said of Majiga-Kamoto, “She mustered the troops, the grassroots communities, to take on the government and big industry and won several times. She not only won the ban in law but is now holding the government’s feet to the fire to enforce it.”

+ Goldman Environmental Prize


Images via Goldman Environmental Prize