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Uche Anichebe: How Nigeria Can Solve Its Plastic Problem

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Many Nigerians are fond of throwing their used plastics into drainages and roads. While this might not seem like a big deal, plastics have been ‘discovered’ to be very harmful and hazardous to humans, animals and the environment at large.

The Trouble with Plastic

Did you know that a plastic bottle requires an average of 400 – 1,000 years to decompose and that the average time that a plastic bag is used is for about 12-30 minutes before it is trashed? Did you know that annually, about 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide and that every single piece of plastic ever made still exists in some form? More than ever before, our planet is facing increased plastic pollution which has resulted in climate change and has severe socio-economic, health, and environmental implications.

Let’s bring this issue close to home…

According to a report issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2015, Nigeria was ranked as the 9th in the world for plastic pollution and mismanagement of plastic waste. It is also estimated that Nigeria generates more than 32 million metric tonnes of waste annually, most of which constitute plastics, with Lagos alone producing about 10,000 metric tonnes of waste daily. These statistics do not come as a surprise considering that the Nigerian government is yet to join global effort to checkmate plastic pollution, despite the fact that its major cities are plagued by plastic pollutants. According to the statistics released by the World Health Organization in 2016, four Nigerian cities (Anambra, Kaduna, Aba, and Umuahia) were ranked amongst the 20 most polluted cities in the world.

Implications of Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is a major environmental problem in several African countries, including Nigeria. It contributes to climate change and the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to a report issued by the Centre for International Law in 2019, by 2050, plastics could emit 56 billion tons of Greenhouse gas emissions, as much as 14 percent of the earth’s remaining carbon budget. Plastic pollution is a form of chemical pollution which severely disrupts the environment. When plastics are dumped on the soil, they decompose incredibly slowly and release toxic chemicals, such as the preservatives used in their production, into the soil. This has the potential to harm plants and animals when they are accumulated.

In addition, plastic pollution is also harmful to human life. A recent report – Microplastics in Drinking-Water, which was issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment and have been found in marine water, wastewater, freshwater, food, air and drinking water (both bottled water and tap water). The WHO also noted that some of the world’s most popular bottled water brands contained tiny pieces of plastic.

Although plastics are detrimental to marine life, most of the world’s plastics are destined to end in the world’s oceans. According to a 2016 report issued by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, if preventive steps are not taken, by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. Most sea creatures confuse plastic as food and consume them. Hence, a number of sea creatures have been found to contain large proportions of plastics in their stomachs. These plastics are not digestible and potentially block the digestive systems of such sea creatures, which ultimately results in their death. Sometimes, sea creatures get entangled in plastic products like fishing nets, sieves and large debris, which restricts their movement and eventually results in starvation and death.

On a basic level, when plastic disposal is not properly managed, they make the environment unsustainable. For instance, in several cities in Nigeria, due to the surge in plastic pollution, light showers of rain result in excessive flooding. That’s because the landfills and drainage systems are clogged with waste – especially plastics and polythene bags. When trash, in the form of plastic, is littered in the environments, it reduces the aesthetic quality of such places and may result in a decline in their monetary value. In extreme circumstances, this may impact the physical and mental health of the residents of such places. Since plastics are non-biodegradable and last for hundreds of years, for every plastic can that is casually tossed onto the street by an individual, such individual – as well as his/her grandchildren – will experience these terrible consequences of plastic pollution, unless drastic steps are taken to curb plastic pollution.

Actions Taken in Other Jurisdictions

There is a global consciousness about plastic pollution. It was reported by the UN Environment that as of July 2018, 127 out of 1921 countries reviewed (about 66%) have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags. With particular emphasis on Africa, a report by the National Geographic in April, 2019 shows that the African continent now leads the world in bag regulations, with 34 countries adopting taxes or bans on plastic bags. 31 of these countries are from sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, Nigeria is not one of those countries.

Rwanda has always been in the frontline in the combat against plastic pollution and in this regard, has been a beacon to other African and non-African nations. As soon as you arrive at the dainty Kigali Airport in Rwanda, you will be greeted by a large sign-post reading: “Use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited”. Since 2008, Rwanda instituted a national ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags – also known as polyethylene bags – which is very common in Nigeria. As an alternative, businesses in Rwanda now use paper bags, cloths, and other biodegradable materials; and defaulters face heavy fines or terms of imprisonment. Rwanda is currently one of the cleanest nations in the world and Kigali, its capital city, is acclaimed as the cleanest city in Africa. In addition, it has been reported that since the ban, the country eliminated plastic pollution and has seen a reduction in animal deaths, soil erosion, flooding, and malaria.

In 2017, Kenya introduced a ban on the manufacturing, sale, and distribution of plastic carrier bags and imposed the most severe penalties for plastic bag use: four-year jail term or $40,000 fine. Following the ban, polypropylene bags – which are a type of plastic that is easier to recycle than polythene – became a popular alternative in Kenya. In addition to the effort of the government, civil society organisations in Kenya have also given voice to the plastic revolution in Kenya. Interestingly, three years ago a group of Kenyans organised a beach cleanup, collecting more than 30 tonnes of plastic waste and seven tonnes of flip-flops, which were then used in the construction of the world’s first dhow made entirely from discarded flip flops and waste plastics. This birthed the “Flipflopi Project”, in which the project team (traveling on the Dhow which sailed along the coast from Kenya to Cape Town) engage relevant stakeholders, share solutions to plastic pollution and advocate for a change in mindset about single-use plastic. The dhow has sailed across the coast of African cities (i.e. Zanzibar, Mombasa, Nairobi, Lamu, and Cape Town), raising awareness about marine plastic pollution. Other African countries which have placed a ban on plastic bags include Tanzania and South Africa.

Although the use of plastic bags is not illegal in the United Kingdom, its use has been on the decline, owing to the UK’s improved strategies for dealing with discarded plastic. In January 2018, the UK placed a ban on microbeads. In addition, the Buckingham Palace has implemented a plan to phase out the use of disposable plastics at royal estates and introduced biodegradable takeaway containers. In addition, a number of UK businesses, such as Sainsbury and Solero, have shown commitment to the reduction of plastic pollution by removing plastic bags from their produce and bakery aisles. Restaurants like Pizza Express, Wagamama and Costa Coffee have put an end to the use of plastic straws – which are outrightly banned in Scotland.

How Nigeria can take Action

Amidst global effort to curb plastic plague, Nigeria has not entirely adopted a ‘siddon look’ approach. In May 2019, the House of Representatives passed a Bill for the ban of plastic bags in Nigeria, called the ‘Plastic Bag Prohibition Bill. The Bill provides for an Act to prohibit the use, manufacture, and importation of all plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging in order to address harmful impacts to oceans, rivers, lakes, forests, environment, as well as human beings. It’ll also help relieve pressure on landfills and waste management and so on.  In addition, the Bill mandates retailers to offer a paper bag to customers at a point of sale, and criminalizes default by retailers. The penalty prescribed in the Bill is a fine not exceeding five hundred thousand Naira or 3 years imprisonment.  However, defaulting companies will be liable to a fine of five million Naira.

Whilst the passage of the Bill is a laudable step, it is hoped that the Bill will be enacted into law within the shortest time possible. However, taking cognizance of the fact that a number of legislative bills fall through (especially where they are not of particular interest to the government) and considering that the country has a number of laws which are not adequately enforced, the Bill may not offer an immediate solution to the plastic plague in Nigeria. Given that plastic pollution requires urgent attention, there is, therefore, a need to seek immediate recourse to alternative measures.

The preliminary step in addressing plastic pollution is to have a re-orientation and instill behavioral change. This includes intentionally reducing our usage of plastic bags and instead opting for environment-friendly bio-degradable alternatives like bags made from paper, fibre, and fabric. A further basic step is to take our own shopping bags to the malls, markets, and dry cleaners, and re-using them as often as possible. Also, before thrashing plastic materials, always consider how they can be reused and encourage family and friends to act accordingly. The government can also assist significantly by supporting eco-friendly businesses. This can be achieved by providing grants and other special benefits to such businesses, so as to incentivize them and spur other businesses.

Plastic recycling is also a means of managing plastics. This involves collecting plastic waste and reprocessing them into new products with the aim of reducing the amount of plastic in the waste stream and conserving the environment. Plastics can be recycled into several items including kitchen wares, trash bags, and packing materials.

In several countries of the world – including Ghana, South Africa, and Scotland – companies are effectively recycling plastics by using plastic wastes in the construction of asphalt roads and paving blocks. Unfortunately, the Bill does not have provisions on recycling. Given the importance of recycling in plastic waste management, it is recommended that the same should be introduced in the Bill before its assent by the president of Nigeria.

However, it is important to note that not all plastics can be recycled. Unlike thermoplastics, thermoset cannot be re-melted and re-molded into new products because they contain polymers which form irreversible chemical bond. Also, the downside to recycling is that in the recycling process, second-hand plastics may absorb toxic chemicals such as flame retardants – which are dangerous for human health. In addition, the process undertaken in recycling plastics often results in the emission of toxic gases into the environment, which threatens the vegetation, as well as human and animal health. Notwithstanding, it is generally agreed that recycling reduces plastic wastes and is a better option than disposing wastes into landfills and the ocean.

It is also crucial to create increased awareness in Nigeria about the dangers of plastic pollution. This can be done by educating relevant stakeholders in the production and distribution chain (i.e., manufacturers, market authorities and store owners) in Nigeria on how they can contribute to combatting the plastic plague in their communities, through change in policy, production and packaging process. Civil Society Organisations and concerned individuals have key roles to play in creating such awareness to such stakeholders and the general public. In addition, we can encourage businesses that are eco-friendly by patronizing them and encouraging others to follow suit.

Conclusion

Owing to its far-reaching implications, plastic pollution has become a global concern and it could get terrible for Nigeria if we do not take urgent curative measures. In order to be effective, such measures must be intentional and collective, involving the private and public sectors. It would also require a positive approach and sacrifice of the specious conveniences that plastic materials provide. In the global revolution against plastic, Nigeria cannot be left behind. If other nations can do it, we can too!

Uche Anichebe is qualified as an attorney in Nigeria and she is an associate in Banwo & Ighodalo. ([email protected])

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