Africa seems to have finally made the move, albeit belatedly, to join the growing global concern to save the environment from the pernicious and yet pervasive grip of plastic pollution.
At the 2018 World Environmental Day,Nigeria Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, pledged the country’s commitment to the cause by enunciating government policy on plastic pollution.
This, according to him, included a strategy evolved by the Ministry of Environment and critical stakeholders to phase out non-biodegradable plastic.
Heart-warming as it may seem, this is easier said than done because of the role plastic plays in the daily lives of Africans.
It is one of the most widely used materials – at home, in industries for manufacturing, offices, supermarkets, hospitals and in sports. It is used to manufacture containers for all manner of things – food, water, chemicals; the list is endless.
But plastic has to be handled with care, as its association with humans, though meant to serve useful purposes, has inadvertently become a scourge, threatening the environment and, by extension, humanity.
Since it has become so useful, the rate of production of plastic materials has increased exponentially. According to Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, it is estimated that 360 million tonnes of plastic will be produced this year alone.
This, he said, would increase to 500 million tonnes by 2025, and 619 million tonnes, five years later. In a report entitled, “The New Plastics Economy”, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and World Economic Forum last year predicted that, if the current trend continued, there would be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
Although other types of waste can easily decay, plastic is not biodegradable, which makes it difficult to dispose of after use,most plastic materials would take between 500 and 1,000 years to degrade, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a growing global alliance of individuals, organisations, businesses and policy makers committed to a plastic-free world, described it as “a durable material made to last forever.”
For this reason, it is very difficult to properly dispose of plastic, thus resulting in discarded ones being found practically everywhere. In Africa, plastic bottles are flung through the window of moving vehicles.
The same goes for plastic bags and plates, especially by those travelling who have to eat during their journeys. The result is that the accumulation of these pieces litters the streets and sometimes clogs the drainage, leading to flooding, whenever it rains.
In other cases, there is an attempt to burn them together with other piles of refuse at the dumps site. This results in the release of serious pollutants into the air. When breathed in, it is very harmful to humans.
Even when it is sometimes used as landfills, it pollutes underground sources of water because it does not decay but can break down into toxic particles, which seep into rivers or other sources of drinking water.
More importantly, tons of this plastic waste and toxins find their way into the ocean, where they could be mistakenly eaten by the fish. Some of the fish may end up being eaten by humans, who are also poisoned through what they eat.
In an incredible narrative, Solheim, in a publication, wrote, “In my home country of Norway, a stranded whale died after having ingested 30 plastic bags.” He said that astonishing 12 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the oceans every year, “harming plants, animals, coastal communities and entering the food chain.”
According to the PPC, chemicals leached by plastic materials find their ways into the blood and tissues of humans; they are “linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.” With the proliferation of global plastic pollution, it is not surprising that the rate of non-communicable diseases has assumed epidemic proportions.
Since plastic pollution comes from improper disposal, it is important to ensure that plastic is not dumped indiscriminately but in clearly designated places where it can be retrieved for recycling.
In the most advanced countries where recycling of plastic is already being practised, the compliance level is still very modest. For instance, the highest compliance level, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, is in northern Europe and that is just 50 per cent. In the United States, PPC puts the quantity of plastic discarded every year at 30 million tonnes, out of which only eight per cent is recycled.
Besides recycling, there have to be other measures to prevent pollution. Plastic manufacturers should be encouraged to produce plastic materials that are not discarded after first use; manufacturing more reusable plastic will reduce the frequency of manufacture and, as a result, littering.
African countries should also consider making laws to criminalise the production of plastic. In a country like Kenya, for instance, producing, selling or using non-degradable plastic bags could attract a four-year jail term.
Reports indicate that over 40 countries across the globe have taken steps to ban, either outright or partly, single-use plastic materials. Only last month, the European Commission proposed the banning of single-use plastic. To save the environment and humanity, Nigeria should be ready to go tough on the issue of plastic pollution.