Managing concerns about plastic products
As environmental and public health scientists are paying attention to the expediency of managing plastic products to protect the ecosystem and humanity, there is need to call attention of government and the people to the desirability of studying what to do too without throwing away the baby with the bathwater.
The growing concern over plastic pollution informed the trend around the world towards phasing out the ubiquitous plastic bags. The current re-echoed in Kenya recently as the country enacted a tough law banning the production, sale or use of plastic bags in the country. Offenders risk four years jail term or $40, 000 fines. The law allows police to even go after anyone carrying plastic bag. It was said that the development in Kenya took about a decade of planning to come to fruition.
There are some significant lessons about the Kenyan example: Government officials said they would like to target manufacturers and suppliers first. The law aims at reducing plastic bag pollution as well as improving public health.
Heaps of plastic bags that stick out of piles of waste dumps around Nairobi’s Kibera slums, an eyesore has been a source of worry to the authorities. It took Kenya three attempts to pass the law over a period of ten years in determined resolve to get rid of the menace. Of course, not many people are in support of the drastic law.
By the action, Kenya has joined the league of more than 40 other countries that have already banned, partly banned or imposed taxes on single use of plastic bags. Specifically, China, Rwanda, France and Italy are among the countries that have placed some form of ban on plastic bags.
Concern for clean environment and public health is critical. Indications are that plastic bags drift into the ocean strangulating turtles, suffocating seabirds and filling the stomach of dolphins and whales leading to their death by starvation.
Meanwhile, authorities in Nigeria too should note this caveat from the American Doctors Association, which has warned about the dangers of plastics on public health. According to the association, when plastic gets into contact with heat, it produces chemicals, which may cause 52 types of cancer.
Members of the public are, therefore, warned not to take tea in plastic cups. Consumers are also warned not to eat anything hot including chips in plastic bags and containers. People are also warned about heating foodstuffs in microwave oven using plastic material. Unfortunately, many Nigerians are still ignorant of these dangers. Daily, people are exposed to the deleterious effects of plastics. Buying food including soups and other liquids in plastic bags is now commonplace in many roadside canteens.
Getting people to desist from such practices is imperative. Action should start from the food vendors who should be restrained from selling food in plastic bags. But the environment management and health agencies should be involved in this civic education.
As non-biodegradable materials, plastic bags take upwards of 500 to 1000 years to break down. That means several generations are affected by the indiscriminate dropping of plastic bags. The materials enter the human food chain through fish and other ruminant animals.
There are reports that in Nairobi’s slaughterhouses, as many as 20 plastic bags are removed from the stomach of some cows meant for human consumption, a situation that was not seen ten years ago. Experts fear that except something is done to curb the menace of plastic bags, by 2050, there would be more plastic bags in the ocean than fish as experts have warned.
A region of the North Atlantic Ocean called Sargasso Sea is said to have high concentration of non-biodegradable plastic waste. Scientists have found bacteria in the plastic-polluted waters of the sea. The plastic debris absorbs toxic chemicals from ocean pollution, which potentially poisons anything that eats it. Human are endangered through the consumption of seafoods that may have ingested bacteria infested plastic products.
The situation in Nigeria is not different from that of Kenya. Indiscriminate dropping of plastic bags and bottles constitutes a major environmental hazard. Our cities and urban centres are littered with all manner of plastic materials.
Gutters and drainage channels are clogged with piles of plastic materials that cause flooding when it rains, as water cannot pass through blocked drains. Sadly enough, people are not conscious of the public health hazards of plastic products. There is no accessible record of how plastic materials have impacted the Nigerian population.
All told, we are not inclined to support banning of plastic bags for now. Given the mentality of Nigerians, that option would be difficult to achieve at this time. We consider recycling as one way out at the moment. Nigerians should be enlightened in that direction.
Waste recycling should be integrated into the food chain. Once the appropriate framework is established, this aspect of recycling could create business and employment. Picking the quantum of plastics in the environment would add value to the economy. It will take three to four years to pick the plastics already on ground. All that is required is for a vibrant private sector to take ownership and control of the business.
It needs to be stressed that plastic is a product of the 20th century. Nearly everything is in plastic. As a non-biodegradable material, proper handling is crucial. The alternative is carrier paper bags, which some countries are already switching over to. That strategy too is a viable option to deal with indiscriminate littering of the bags that is quite challenging to management. Authorities in Nigeria should not wait for disasters before we set up crisis control panels, in this regard.
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