Nigeria’s Plastic Pollution Crisis: What Can Be Done?

Chukwunomnso Okeke*

In today’s world, plastic has attained a status of near-indispensability across all levels and facets of our global society. With its presence in all kinds of items, ranging from mobile phones to cars to clothing and even items like contact lenses, braces and surgical implants that are inside our bodies, plastics have become an integral part of the human experience. This is due to a combination of multiple factors that give it a distinct advantage over every other material that is currently used, such as its versatility, durability, lightweight, malleability, and resistance to water and chemicals. Above all, plastic items are also incredibly cost-effective to produce. These factors have led to the astronomical increase in the demand for and consumption of plastic since it first became commercially available in the 1950s, with the rate of production growing faster than that of any other material.

However, due to the proliferation of plastic items across the globe, waste management equipment and facilities have been overwhelmed by the daily deluge of plastic waste that is continuously released into the environment. According to the UNEP, the world produces between 300–400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, which is equal to or greater than the approximate weight of the entire human population. Yet, most of it is not effectively recycled, with only around 9% of plastic being recycled globally. The degree to which plastic waste has polluted the environment has led researchers to suggest that it could be the geological indicator of mankind’s existence on Earth, referred to as the Anthropocene era.

In Nigeria, the severity of plastic pollution is alarming. This is fuelled by the unenviable combination of overuse and poor waste disposal of plastic materials. Nigeria is one of the largest consumers of plastic in Africa, accounting for 17% of total plastic consumption on the continent, which includes the importation of 20 million tonnes of primary plastics and plastic products between 1996 and 2017 — a figure that is expected to surpass 40 million tonnes by 2030. Furthermore, the country manufactured 2.3 million tonnes of primary plastic between 2005 and 2015, third among eight African countries with a documented history of plastic resin production.

Three of the most common forms of plastic include:

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): Used to make plastic water and fizzy drink bottles
  • Polypropylene: Found in plastic diapers, plastic bottle caps, biscuit wrappers, and drinking straws
  • Polyvinyl chloride: Used in pipes, wire and cable sheathing, shower curtains, and food packaging

Yet, the vast majority of the plastic consumed in the country is mismanaged and ends up littering the roadsides, filling gutters, tarnishing the natural environment, and ending up in water bodies across the country. In total, over 850,000 tonnes of plastic are mismanaged each year, with more than 130,000 tonnes of plastic entering Nigeria’s water bodies annually, placing it among the top 20 countries worldwide contributing to marine debris.

This causes significant harm to aquatic life and has destabilised the delicate balance of countless marine habitats and ecosystems around the world. It has also resulted in severe economic losses from the damage to businesses caused by flooding and the expenditure of billions of naira in public funds to salvage and restore affected areas.

Despite the statistics that present a bleak outlook on our common future as Nigerians, it must be emphasised that the challenge of plastic pollution is not insurmountable. Nationwide, there are a significant number of organisations working to combat the plague of plastic pollution that is causing severe damage across the country. This includes businesses operating in the recycling space, as well as governmental and non-governmental organisations. However, the involvement of individuals, households and small businesses is crucial to effecting the degree of change needed to turn the tide on plastic waste. This can be done through the following methods:

  • Refuse: The most effective way to address the challenge of plastic waste is by avoiding single-use plastic at the point of consumption. When presented with the opportunity to consume single-use plastic, individuals can opt to refuse it instead. For example, when going shopping at a retail outlet, customers can refuse the plastic bags used to gather their purchases. Or they can refuse plastic plates and cutlery when offered and, instead, request metal, wood, or ceramic alternatives.
  • Reduce: Closely related to refusing plastic is reducing the amount of plastic we use. Due to the ubiquity of plastics, it is not always possible to completely avoid using them. However, the less plastic we consume, the less we throw away. In Lagos state alone, plastic waste generation can be as high as 45kg per capita per annum, the majority of which is improperly disposed of and causes a myriad of environmental issues. Therefore, conscious actions to reduce the amount of single-use plastic consumed daily would significantly reduce the plastic waste that litters the environment or is sent to landfill. For example, a customer can decide to use one plastic bag when shopping instead of three or four for different items.
  • Reuse: The rise of consumerism and the prioritisation of convenience has resulted in the proliferation of single-use plastics designed to be discarded after a single use. Unfortunately, the majority of these items are not recyclable and are eventually sent to landfill. However, huge strides can be made toward lessening the amount of plastic waste generated if plastic items were reused. According to a potential plastic reuse scenario proposed by France and the EU Parliament, if 10–20% of plastic packaging is reusable, 45–90% of annual plastic ocean waste and 10–25% of annual plastic landfill waste would be diverted. This rises to 185–320% of annual plastic ocean waste and 50–80% of plastic landfill waste if the scenario set by Greenpeace of 40–70% of all plastic packaging being reused is implemented. Likewise, if customers endeavour to reuse their shopping bags, each person can prevent several plastic bags from going to the landfill.
  • Replace: Plastic waste can also be eliminated by replacing plastic items with other more durable and longer-lasting alternatives. Instead of collecting new plastic bags each time an individual goes shopping, he or she can instead carry a cloth bag or another alternative that can be reused indefinitely.
  • Repurpose: One of the biggest contributors to plastic waste is the perception that once its primary function has been extinguished, it no longer has any value and is, therefore, worthless. However, a lot of waste can be reduced if we use them for a purpose other than their intended use. Many households already practice this in various ways, such as using empty bottles of water to store cooking oil or using plastic bags to carry liquids and footwear when travelling to avoid spillage and stains. Due to the durability of plastic, many of these items often persist as repurposed items and can continue to provide value even after being worn out or damaged.
  • Recycle: This is perhaps the most commonly mentioned method of eliminating plastic waste, where plastic items are broken down and converted into other materials for future use. It is an important means of addressing plastic pollution and individuals, households, and businesses should endeavour to adopt the habit of recycling their plastic products or items to prevent them from further deteriorating the environment.
  • Resolve: Finally, all members of society, from the individual to the private sector entities to the government itself must resolve to work towards the elimination of plastic pollution. This could involve making commitments to stop using plastic bags entirely, or to avoid the use of plastic bottles where they cannot be immediately recycled. This underpins every other action because the issue of plastic pollution in Nigeria and indeed the rest of the world needs immediate attention and solutions, which cannot be provided without a widespread resolution to do so.

The threat of plastic pollution across the world, but particularly in Nigeria, has reached severe levels and will only get worse if there is no societal change. At Clean Technology Hub, we are committed to inducing change by shifting the perceptions and behaviours of the general public towards plastic and waste. We are doing this through our recently launched Plastic Action Campaign, which commenced this month to coincide with Plastic Free July. Through this campaign, we sensitize people on the health and environmental hazards caused by the indiscriminate disposal of plastic waste, and on the steps, they can take in their households and communities to alleviate the problem. This is being driven through our social media platforms as well as via physical advocacy engagements intended to inculcate better plastic consumption and waste management habits among the populace.

Chukwunomnso Okeke* is an Environment and Climate Action Associate at Clean Technology Hub.

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