The U.N. defines ‘single-use plastics’ as items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled.
Not too long ago, it was common practice in Nigeria to take your own plastic bags when you went to the shops or markets and reusable plastic bowls when you went to buy food, in fact it was likely a requirement at some local eateries as plastics were not as cheap as they are today. Since then there has been a shift from these more durable plastics to thinner cheaper plastics designed for single use. In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic but in 2016 alone, global population of more than seven billion people produced over 300 million tons of plastic. The rate of plastic production has grown faster than any other material and despite it’s many valuable uses Nigeria has become addicted to single-use plastics and there is a perverse ‘throw-away’ culture, irrespective of its severe environmental and public health consequences.
But there is no such thing as “away”; research shows that only 9% of the nine billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s have been recycled. Most of our plastics end up in a landfill or the natural environment. About 900,000 mt of plastic waste is dumped into ocean bodies in Nigeria and according to the Commissioner for the Environment, Mr. Babatunde Durosinmi-Etti, about 50% emanates from Lagos alone. These statistics shouldn’t be shocking to residents or visitors to Lagos. It only takes one car ride from the airport to your destination to see the trash piles consisting of mostly plastic bags and bottles, littering streets and sewage banks, blocking gutters and clogging waterways.
Plastic is not biodegradable and the effects on the environment are devastating and lead to the eventual destruction of our livelihood. The chemical additives used in the production of plastics have potentially harmful effects on our marine life and on land animals, and can end up in the food chain with health consequences for humans. Plastics take hundreds of years to break down and so the slow degradation means that these chemicals seep into the soil, threatening its fertility and affecting harvest. Marine life is also affected in the same way; due to the continuous pollution of oceans with plastic, according to Dr. Martins Akoede, a renowned marine biologist, “it has become almost impossible for our fish to safely lay eggs.” Our rivers are now not producing enough fish, hence the increased importation of fish and fish products. In the absence of fishing, some fishermen and women in river communities such as in the Niger Delta have taken up more anti-social activities. The lack of an effective waste management system combined with poor drainage systems in Nigeria, means that when the rains come the floods cannot find their way to the river, due to the plastic waste blocking and clogging our waterways, making an already dire situation that much worse, The floods destroy crops and property, leaving thousands of people stranded and hopeless and can also lead to potential spread of waterborne diseases.
There are a myriad of effects that plastic pollution has on our environment as well as on human health and yet PET manufacturers continue to produce at an alarming rate in order to maximize profits. These companies would not be able to get away with this in developed countries; they have taken advantage of the lack of regulation in Nigeria and it is time to hold them accountable. Plastic pollution is not just an environmental issue; it is a social justice issue. It is time for our government to enact smart legislation to protect our communities from the dangers of single-use plastics.