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Nigeria: Drowning in plastic

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Can we track the growing menace of the billions of tons of plastic used and discarded every year?

It is estimated that one million plastic bottles are sold around the world every minute and yet there is no drastic plan to combat this vast plastic waste explosion.

According to the State of Plastics report, only nine percent of the nine billion tonnes of plastic in the world ever produced are recycled. What this means is we are literally drowning in plastic waste.

Once seen as just a pile of mere rubbish, the rise in the indiscriminate and careless use of plastic is gradually becoming an epidemic not only to humans but the environment.

While the amount of plastic produced in a year is roughly the same as the entire weight of humanity, plastic production is set to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050.

More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300 billion a decade ago.

By 2021 this will increase to 583.3 billion, according to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report.

Nela Duke, CEO Obudu Conservation Cen- tre, pegged the production on plastic bottles in Nigeria to about fifteen thousand tons per day (around 5.4 million yearly).

“We are not the biggest country in the world, we can’t afford to have that much plastic,” she said to The Guardian.

About three decades ago, plastic waste was not a significant concern. However, with the change in consumer lifestyle coupled with irregular and careless dumping of plastic waste everywhere, the growing trend is giving environmentalists night- mares and overwhelming waste disposal agencies in Nigeria.

“By the year 2050, plastic bottles will be more than the fishes in the ocean,” Recycler and Environmentalist, Victor Igonoh said.

Plastics litter all nook and cranny of cities and towns. The indiscipline has reached a feverish level.

The most common are water bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and styrofoam takeaway containers.

No day passes without commuters throwing any of these on the streets after every single use.

Beverage and soda companies are culpable in the menace, Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organisation with headquarters in Amsterdam, said.

After Coca Cola refused to disclose its global plastic usage publicly, Greenpeace argued that the company produces more than 100 billion throwaway plastic bottles every year or 3,400 a second, according to analysis carried out by Greenpeace.

The top six beverage companies in the world use a combined average of only 6.6% of recycled PET bottles in their products, it said.

The brand and marketing manager of CWAY, Auscar Ikoro, although mentioned that the company produces most of the bottles in water business in Nigeria, noted that the company “do not take it [recycling] lightly.”

Ngozi Giwa-Amu, Legal Adviser to Seven-Up, said its bottles are easily recyclable. She suggests that commuters and consumers of these products to “collect them for recycling bottling companies around the city.”

So what do these irregular dumping and poor plastic control mean for our source of life? Being non-biodegradable, plastics remain where they are without decomposing for a long time and do irreversible damage to the environment and all life associated with it.

Moreover, plastic leaches harmful chemicals like carcinogens, endocrine disruptions, phthalates, heavy metals, and more when kept for a long time.

The waste is so ubiquitous that micro-plastics and fibres, some smaller than the width of a human hair, have been found in shellfish, tap water, honey, sugar and table salt.

Very little is yet known about the health impact of these micro-plastics, which are ingested by humans and animals.

However, environmentalist Doyinsola Ogunye told Guardian TV that “micro-plastics kills the aquatics out-rightly because they eat it thinking it is food.”

“And because we eat from the ocean too, it gets into our digestive system, and there are many toxins because plastic is basically petroleum,” she added.

In 2016, the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research, citing in- creasing concern for human health and food safety taking into consideration the potential for micro-plastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish.

“There is a need for us to do something about it because it has become a major issue all over the world,” professor of ecotoxicology and pollution, Adebayo Otitoloju, said.

It is shocking to know that microplastics, widely used as exfoliating agents in different body care products have now made it into one of the most essential and commonly used food element, salt.

According to a report, salt most probably contains one of the most hazardous health deterioration agents known to humanity that could even lead to untimely death.

A recent study analysed common salt samples from some countries. Upon close inspection, the salt samples revealed tiny plastic elements, or more specifically plastic fibres scrapped out from commonly used PET bottles.

Thus, as evident, plastics are now literally redefining the term ‘omnipresence’ by making their way into man’s life and its constituent biological systems, slowly triggering the red alert signal for humanity and all other forms of life.

The problem of plastics requires a rethink. It should not be about plastics alone but also about our dominant economic pattern, our development strategies and the future of consumer goods packaging.

This is why it’s one of the most critical issues in our world today, deserving more attention from all of us.

In an effort to reduce the devastation and harmful environmental impacts, over 60 countries have out-rightly banned, partly banned or taxing single-use plastic bags.

These policies have been useful, reducingvplastic bag consumption by as much as 85% in some countries.

Bangladesh was the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002. China, Israel, South Africa, the Netherlands, Morocco, Rwanda, Mauritania, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Albania, and Georgia have since implemented a similar ban.

In August 2017, Kenya introduced one of the world’s strictest laws on plastic bags. The east African nation imposed a four-year prison sentence, or a fine of 40,000 dollars on anyone caught using polythene bags.

Other countries are experimenting with mandatory tax charges on usage or voluntary abandonment of plastic bags.

For example, the UK has a 5-pence compulsory charge for plastic bags and Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains voluntarily stopped handing out free plastic bags this month.

In the United States, San Francisco was the first city in the U.S. to completely ban plastic bags back in 2007. This policy pushes San Francisco residents even further to use reusable bags by placing an additional 10-cent fee on single-use compostable or recycled paper bags that customers need at the checkout.

Also in Washington, D.C. tax was imposed on plastic bags. The revenue collected from this 5-cent tax goes to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund and distributes reusable bags to low-income and elderly communities in DC.

Another city in the U.S, Seattle in 2012 banned retail stores from handing out single-use bags.

Grocery stores were also prohibited from providing plastic bags at the checkout but were allowed to have single-use bags, as long as the bags were made with a minimum of 40% recycled material and taxed at five cents per pack.

In August 2018, New Zealand Government said it would ban single-use plastic shop- ping bags in 2019.

Tanzania in April 2019 announced its plan to ban the production, importation, sale, and use of all single-use plastic bags by July.

In the same month, New York state is set to ban single-use plastic bags provided by stores, making it only the second US state, after California, to pass such a rule. If the bill passes, the ban on single-use plastic bags — which still allows for several exemptions – will take effect in March 2020.

Judging by actions taken so far by these African nations, how much time does the Nigerian Government need before it takes urgent and meaningful steps to address the menace of plastics pollution and save the country from drowning under it?

Good things come to those who wait, they say. However, while waiting, we must “re- duce, re-use, recycle and refuse,” plastics, said Ogunleye.

Watch the video documentary of this special feature on tv.guardian.ng


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