Media Discursive Practices and the Representation of Single-Use Plastics Ban in Malawi
Victor Chikaipa PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Malawi, School of Humanities and Social Sciences
The problem of single-use plastics is a global environmental challenge that has received particular attention in Malawi. The media has played a crucial role by providing an arena for the campaign and public debates on reducing the use of plastics. The media, through its discursive practices, became a critical agent in framing, presenting, and representing discourses and realities on single-use plastics, thereby setting the agenda and influencing public policies towards the ban on single-use plastics in Malawi. The media have a mandate to facilitate dialogue and provide relevant information to citizens so that members of the public can gain a better understanding of their society (McCombs and Shaw, 1993). In this regard, Malawi’s media played a significant role in increasing the public’s understanding and knowledge of the threat caused by single-use plastics in the environment.
Research on single-use plastics in Malawi has generally focused on examining how improper plastic waste management has impacted the environment (Griffin and Karasik, 2022; Kalina et al. 2021; Kasinja and Tilley, 2018; Turpie et al. 2019). In particular, these studies have examined how plastic waste affected the agricultural and tourism industries, two key sectors for generating revenue in Malawi. This article departs from the previous studies and focuses instead on the role of the media in shaping public debate on the topic. It explores the following questions: Who were the key sources or actors in the coverage of the singleuse plastic issues in the newspapers? How did the media discursively frame the single-plastic use ban for the public? What was the tone of coverage and presentation of the single-use plastics ban in the media? This article finds that the key topical issues that dominated and framed media coverage of the ban were human interest stories and health. In addition, sources were primarily experts, with political and expert representations dominating the narratives. The media coverage reproduced the views of those in power, which solely focused on the implementation of the ban without suggesting potential alternatives that could empower local communities to create opportunities from plastic waste. Finally, human interest and economic themes on single-use plastics dominated the coverage in the newspapers. This article presents a critical review and analysis of how various media discourses on the single-use plastic ban were framed and the tone of coverage as presented in and by the local print media.
The rest of this article is organized as follows. First, the above section sets the context of the study as it highlights the significance of the media in facilitating the general understanding of critical issues that directly affect the public, specifically the single-use plastic ban. Secondly, the paper discusses the ban in Malawi, especially focusing on how it was enacted and the current status quo. The third section discusses the thematic and content approaches that are deployed to assist in the analysis and interpretation of the data, and presents the methodology used in the collection of data. The subsequent sections give an account of the results and discussion, specifically focusing on the dominant news sources of the media articles, and how discourses on the ban have been packaged and presented in the local print media. Finally, the article presents its conclusions and reflections.
The Single-Use Plastics Ban
In Malawi, concerns about the impact on ecosystems and human well-being of single-use plastics have been growing over the past decade. An increase in population alongside a rapid rate of urbanization has exacerbated the reliance on these plastics in both formal and informal markets (Griffin and Karasik, 2022), which includes street vendors, retail shops, supermarkets, and chain stores. Socially, single-use plastics are used as carrier bags and as secondary packaging for various products, especially fresh products like meat, fruits and vegetables, and fish. They are widely used due to their low cost, lightness, resistance to damage, and packaging convenience. Additionally, the amount of plastics has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic as most of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that include gloves, medical/surgical face masks, goggles, face shields, gowns, respirators (N95 or FFP2 or FFP3 standard or equivalent), and aprons being made, primarily, of single-use plastics (see de Sousa, 2021). As such, plastics have been part of people’s daily lives for many decades. Most often they are not properly disposed of, creating a potential environmental hazard in most urban spaces.
In March 2015, following global concerns around the environmental damage caused by single-use plastics waste to the ecosystem and climate change, Malawi joined other countries in ratifying all the international conventions, protocols and policies to protect the environment by instituting a ban on single-use plastics and imposing hefty taxes on outlet shops that could sell them. During the last decade, a lengthy court battle ensued between the government, supported by environmental activists, and the Plastic Manufacturers Association of Malawi (hereafter PMAM) after the ban on the importation, production, trade and commercial distribution of single-use plastics that are less than 60 micrometres in thickness. Some single-use plastic manufacturers sought court relief by obtaining a stay order to restrain the implementation of the ban, but in 2019 the court dismissed the stay and ruled in favour of the government to sustain the implementation of the ban on single-use plastic. The court agreed with the Government’s position that plastics manufacturers had been given sufficient warning and time to prepare to wind up on the production of thin plastics.
Notwithstanding this landmark judgement on the ban, single-use plastics are still available on the Malawian markets. Clandestine industries have continued the production and importation of single-use plastics, as reported widely in the Malawi local print media (Malata 2021). This has resulted in a heated and polarized debate about the ban on single-use plastics between environmental institutions, the government, plastic producers, and average citizens. Environmental institutions and other stakeholders claim that single-use plastics are dumped openly, contributing to the clogging of roadside drains, rivers and lakes and causing flooding and the reproduction of parasites that spread different infectious diseases including malaria and cholera. A case in point is the recent cholera scourge which at the time of writing this article claimed the lives of over 1,412 people (Public Health Institute of Malawi, 2023). On the other hand, average citizens especially common people have argued in favour of single-use plastics, because they are cheap and easy to use. For some, selling plastic carrier bags has sustained their livelihoods. As one of my interviewees commented:
I see that the plastic ban policy is not in the interest of us the poor people, we have no stable jobs, a substantial capital to start other businesses, then how can we feed our families? Selling single-use plastics has been part of our daily life survival to put food on the table. How can the government come to think of banning single-use plastics when they have not provided us with alternative businesses that can thrive with low capital. (Single-use plastic vendor, Limbe Market, Blantyre)
Another respondent had the following sentiments;
This policy has put us shopkeepers in a difficult position because we must look for alternative strategies to serve customers who purchase a lot of goods. What the government is proposing using sack bags which are not sustainable with to our daily profits or income. Customers shun to buy such carrier sack bags because they are expensive and, in the end, it is us who will make losses because we will still be giving them freely for us to make money. (A Shop-owner, Zomba City)
From both comments, the fact that single-use plastics have instrumental and social value signifies how difficult it is to enact the ban without potential alternatives for the general public. It confirms the observations about the presence of the product on the market regardless of the numerous government and environmental stakeholders’ calls to stop using it forthwith. Figure 1 shows some hawkers selling single-use plastic bags in the Blantyre city market.
Given this polarisation, the media’s role in promoting public understanding of the risks related to single-use plastics including the dangers and threats of using plastics is quite significant. As Welzenbach-Vogel et. al (2022) observe, news media reports may help to foster fundamental changes in individual and societal lifestyles in terms of sustainable development. And as earlier highlighted, media is broadly recognized as having the potential to influence public attitudes (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). Its discursive and practical mechanisms set a broad agenda that influence public policies relating to local responses. The print media had the power to set and shape discursive agendas including the public understanding of the issue in the country by making certain issues more prominent in the news. This article uses thematic analysis to critically review and analyse newspaper articles on how various discourses and debates on single-use plastics are packaged and presented in and by the local print media.
Thematic and Content Analysis
I deploy content and thematic analysis to examine different discourses and debates in various published articles in the local print media on the plastic ban issue in Malawi. The method draws from Sarantakos’s (2012: 314) understanding that ‘content analysis aims at analysing the content of texts or written communication.’ Thematic analysis is the method for systematically identifying, organizing and offering insight into patterns of meaning (themes) across a qualitative dataset (Braun and Clarke, 2012). This method, then, is a way of identifying what is common to the way a topic or an issue is talked or written about, and of making sense of those commonalities. Maguire and Delahunt (2017) argue that the purpose of thematic analysis is to identify themes, in other words, to establish important and interesting patterns from the data to address the research questions. The thematic analysis provides an opportunity for researchers to move beyond calculating unambiguous words or statements or expressing ideas. As Namey, Guest, Thairu, and Johnson (2008) explain, themes develop clues that Figure 1 are linked to raw data as summary markers for later analysis, which may include key topics within the data set or comparing frequencies of themes. Boyatzis (1998) observes that a good thematic analysis discovers the relationships between diverse subjects via interpretation. This is much more than simply summarizing the data. I use this method to critically analyse the contents of news articles, civil society online platforms and other reports on the environment.
Braun and Clarke (2006) identified two levels of thematic analyses, namely semantic and latent. The semantic analysis concentrates on the surface or word-level meaning of what the subjects have said or written. In latent analysis, the researcher “starts to identify or examine the underlying ideas, assumptions and conceptualisations – and ideologies – that are theorised as shaping or informing the semantic content” (Braun and Clarke 2006: 84). The present study was informed by the latent analytical approach to transcend the mere surface word interpretation of meanings and to deconstruct responses from the subjects regarding the implementation of the ban on single-use plastics.
Thematic analysis is used on data gathered through a documentary method of content analysis. The study gathered data from articles published in The Nation and The Daily Times newspapers. These publications were selected because they are mainstream quality papers with a wide circulation and the highest average readership in terms of English publication including regular and consistent coverage in Malawi. In addition, both print media outlets have well-established archival documentation of news articles both electronically and in print, which could be accessed easily. The study collected articles that directly covered and made references to the issue of the single-plastic ban between January 2019 and December 2022. The unit of analysis for this study was news articles hence all the news headlines related to single-use plastics were selected for analysis. The selection of the articles was based on the headlines or leads that made mention of single-use plastics. It should be underlined that though the media landscape is gradually shifting towards social media online platforms, print media is still more prominent and serves the broad and diverse public in Malawi. Although the limited space dedicated by the Malawi print media to single-use plastics raises concerns, the primary focus of this study is on reviewing and analysing the quality and modes of the media representations of thin plastic waste. In this section, the presentation of study results will be based on these main sources of information and the critical key topical issues or themes.
Results and Discussion: Packaging of the News on Single-Use Plastic Ban
The study of these two newspapers had two key findings. First, the environmental policy frame dominated the representation of the single-use plastics ban. In terms of the sources of the news, journalists relied on government officials, experts and stakeholders on the environment in the sourcing of information on single-use plastic.
Sources of the News
An interesting observation in the analysis of the news articles is the over-reliance on government and environmental experts for the discursive construction of single-use plastics in Malawi. The print media have given government and civil society officials in the environmental sector more power to define and set the agenda for the single-use plastics ban. In total 223 quoted news sources were identified from 87 articles. The most prominent official voices were from the government authorities and institutions (67%) with the most views sought from the ‘Ministry of Environmental Affairs’, Civil society stakeholders on the environment (15%), scientific experts (12%), the general public (2%) and unspecified sources (4%). The data shows that the media largely reproduced the views of those in power, especially the construction of the legislation and policies of the thin plastics ban. The most prominent sources were government officials, environmental experts and civil society members from the environmental sector. The analysis clearly shows a massive indexing whereby journalists used government authorities to legitimise actions by the different institutions towards the ban. There is only an insignificant difference between The Nation and The Daily Times newspapers, which both largely used government and civil society officials as sources in their discursive construction of thin plastics news. The articles typically highlighted the roles, occupations or status of the government or civil society officials quoted to foreground their unique identities and authenticate the information on single-use plastics. There were also some anonymized sources and stories because the newspapers did not want to take responsibility for the views expressed about the ban on thin plastics.
Most often, local people or communities were conspicuously absent among the sources consulted to offer various opinions and experiences on the single-use plastics ban. The indexing of specific experts could be seen as the media’s deliberate attempt to transfer responsibility to the individuals’ institutions concerned with the environment and set an agenda on the effectiveness of the ban on single-use plastics. The high incidence of using expert, government and civil society stakeholders views politicised the news on the single-use plastic ban because the views of the local people directly affected by the plastic ban were muted and marginalized. The media could have instead prioritized and privileged the voices of ordinary citizens, which may have given insights into the problems that have led to the continuation of using plastics.
Types of Themes in the News Articles
News reports are organized around specific themes that contain topics or related subjects guiding the readers’ understanding of relevant issues. Thematic analysis in news discourse determines the respective linear and hierarchical relationships within the text (van Dijk 1988). News stories may have more than one topic with the media producers emphasizing specific issues that should be regarded as significant, through the use of specific discursive or linguistic features. Fairclough (1995) argues that media discourses employ various framing features that are manipulative in favor of the preferred interpretation of the reported discourse. Journalists make sense of information by emphasizing a select number of thematically-related attributes which reflect the ideology and agenda of the publication’s owners. Given the nature of the issue, knowledge and understanding of single-use plastics are certainly fundamental for public communication purposes. As far as the journalistic packaging of single-use plastics is concerned, a close reading of the full set of data revealed that the newspapers foregrounded the following related key themes: policy, court proceedings, environmental pollution/waste disposal, and human interest. Sometimes there is an overlap or intersection of various topical issues. The figure below presents the distribution of the themes.
The figure above shows that policy dominated all the other themes, followed by court proceedings, primarily coverage of the case between the singleuse plastics manufacturers against the government’s decision to ban thin plastics. In most media reports, the framing of single-use plastic focused on the policy issue informed by the common view of plastic waste as a potential threat to Malawi and its environment. On 9 January 2021, The Nation newspaper had a bold headline titled, ‘CSOs want govt to act on plastic ban’, and similarly in The Daily Times on 27 May 2021 which reads ‘Court ends Malawi’s thin plastics battle’, illustrates how the media advocates for the plastic ban policy. Many other articles centred on a policy theme revolve around neglecting the policy by manufacturers, traders and ordinary citizens. However, the newspapers shy away from presenting different pragmatic solutions or alternatives that could directly empower those affected by the ban. There is also a theme on environmental waste/ disposal that centred on blaming the ordinary citizens’ use and lack of proper disposal of singleuse plastics rather than on their concerns about the ban.
Overall, the critical investigation of the themes shows that the media avoids critically unpacking the underlying causes of the continued use of single-use plastics in Malawi. The paper shows that the media coverage of single-use plastics relied on information from the privileged elites such as environmental experts, government and civil society stakeholders on the environment. Most often the indexing of these officials was from the information gathered through press conferences and briefings. Local or community voices that use single-use plastics in their daily lives are conspicuously absent in most of the news articles. The media then clearly set an agenda to enforce the ban on plastics. The study establishes that media discourses of the thin plastic ban reproduce the views of those in power, especially in the construction of policies and other legislations.
Though the anti-plastic bag policies have been implemented repeatedly, there is stern resistance from ordinary citizens and the business fraternity. Media being the most potent tool of communication in the public sphere would have vouched for a policy review that has to consider various alternatives including socio-economic activities in the implementation of the single-use plastics ban in Malawi. It should have helped to have less contested implementation as in other countries such as Uganda, in East Africa (see Behuria, 2019). Media coverage of singleuse plastics could have adopted a sustainability communication approach by repackaging the information and making the general public aware of the threats of single-use plastics and offering possible alternatives to replace plastic. The general public feels detached from the single-use plastic ban policy because they have not contributed their views on how to avert the problem. Malawi print media should consider balancing the presentation by including the people directly affected by the ban and those involved in the plastic products and industry.