Do plastic bag bans work, who do they affect and how?

Advising the Malawi government on the efficacy of plastic bag bans


Anecdotally, plastic bags have serious detrimental effects on the environment, and over 40 countries around the world have banned, restricted, or placed levies on their use. But attempts by the Malawi government to do this have failed, and have more recently stalled: pro-plastic organisations have successfully argued that the adverse effects outweigh the benefits. Offering the Malawi government an additional perspective which includes a balanced overview of this issue would enhance their ability to withstand opposition. Crucially, though, there is little published research about the effect of restricting plastic-bags in land-locked regions such as Malawi, and the work that has been undertaken draws mixed conclusions.

The participants at the International Engagement Event on Plastic Bag Bans - do they work and who do they effect ? Lilongwe, March 2019


Project aims

The aim of this project is to provide the government of Malawi with a comprehensive, evidence-based, and objective overview of the environmental, economic, and social impact of plastic-bag bans from across the globe. It will do this by answering key questions, such as: What types of bans are in place in Africa and across the world? In what environments, economies and societies are they implemented? And, what are their positive and negative effects; and why is this? Responses to these questions will support the Malawi Government in legislating in line with their countries needs and context.

The team has a particular expertise and focus on surveying and monitoring of both plastics in the environment and attitudes and understandings towards plastic bag use and ban/levy.

Why the University of Leicester & LEAD ?

The collaboration between the University of Leicester and LEAD (Leadership for Environment and Development) will ensure that this project achieves its goals. With expertise in researching and communicating scientific data on perishable and non-perishable (plastic) materials in different environments, and using social science protocols with environmental issues, Principal and Co-ordinating Investigators (Professor Sarah Gabbott; and Dr Bernhard Forchtner, alongside Professor Sosten Chiotha, who is Regional Director for LEAD Southern and Eastern Africa) will ensure accurate, clear, and concise communication of the most recent science on plastic bag pollution, and appropriate advice on associated implementation strategies within a Malawi context. Also, having already coordinated workshops on plastic pollution in East Africa – attended by Malawi academics, NGO representatives, and government officials – and being part of an existing University-of-Leicester/Malawi academic partnership, Profs Gabbott and Chiotha and Dr Forchtner are first-in-line to hand over the project’s findings to a broad-church of high-profile and influential decision makers.

How are you going to do it?

The team undertakes a desk-based study of journal articles, reports (e.g. government), and newspaper articles which synthesises and discusses various plastic-bag policies and their related environmental, economic, and social impact in African countries (e.g. Kenya, Botswana, Cameroon, South Africa) and elsewhere around the world (e.g. China, Ireland, UK). The focus will be to outline the types of legislation used; how they are implemented and enforced; and their effect on the environment, economy, and society. The results will be documented in a written report and presented by the team at a major international policy exchange meeting on plastic contamination in Lilongwe, Malawi. This will be attended by key personnel from the Malawi government, the University of Malawi and a variety of non-governmental organisations, as well as media. Key findings will also be written up and discussed in a peer-reviewed article.


Plastic bag legislation across the globe is complex and diverse. The work of Profs Gabbott, Chiotha and Forchtner will deliver an overview of existing practices and effects from which the Malawi Government can choose aspects most appropriate for their country.  By doing this, it will help promote a way of life in Malawi that maintains a balanced ecosystem, and conserves the biodiversity and ecology necessary for sustainable development and human well-being.

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