Nigeria and the menace of plastic bags

Plastic bags 2.JPG

Plastic bags litter streets in many parts of Nigeria (Image credit: realnewsmagazine.net)

By Taye Obateru

The negative impact of plastic bags on the environment remains a global source of concern. Environmentalists have identified some of these to include pollution, clogging water ways and endangering aquatic life and those of other animals like cattle.

A major attribute of the plastic bag, which has become popular among human beings because of its utility in packaging and carrying things around, is its non-biodegradability. It is said to take hundreds of years to decompose and when burnt, infuses toxic fumes into the air.

The United Nations Environmental Programme in its 2015 Global Waste Management Outlook said plastic bags and other wastes cause flooding in East and West Africa by blocking drainage and water ways.

In Nigeria, the use of plastic bags is very popular. They are used in packaging all manners of things from sachet water to food and other human essentials, such that the amount of plastic bags generated by an average household every day is huge. Official estimate from the Ministry of Environment states that plastic waste accounts for more than 20 per cent of the municipal solid waste stream in Nigeria.

Most of the plastic bags eventually find their ways into the environment because of poor culture of waste disposal.

For instance, many people throw their wastes into drainage or drop them with other wastes in open refuse dumps. The ones thrown into drainage end up clogging the water ways or get washed into streams and rivers and eventually to the ocean. Plastic bags deposited at refuse dumps get blown around by wind littering the environment and constituting an eyesore in many cities and even rural areas across the country.

What Nigerians think about plastic bags

Many Nigerians say they are aware of the menace posed by plastic bags, especially how it defaces the environment.

Commenting on the situation, a geologist, John Aha described them as pollutants which threaten human life and ecology because of the ingredients used to produce them and the chemicals they absorb from the environment.

According to him, “nothing renders drainage infrastructure useless as fast as plastics”. He added that “if the unsightly litters of plastics on the streets don’t bother you, the effects on soil fertility and ultimately food supply should.”

To Ada Adole, a geography teacher, the disadvantages of plastic bags outweigh the advantages. She noted that the hazard they constitute to the human and animal life as well as the environment is enormous.

Will the proposed bag ban materialise?

In June, 2013, Nigeria mooted the idea of banning the use of plastic bags. The then Minister of Environment, Hadiza Mailafia while speaking on the World Environment Day said the ban would take effect by January 1, 2014 to arrest the environmental hazards posed by plastic bags. She added that government would re-introduce paper bags to replace the plastic bags as, according to her, paper bags decompose more easily than plastic bags which contaminate and destroy the environment.

Shortly after the minister’s pronouncement an unnamed official of the ministry was also quoted by the News Agency of Nigeria as having disclosed that a draft action plan for the phasing out of light weight non-biodegradable plastics had been developed. He said necessary funds were being awaited to commence implementing the action plan.

However, the plan did not go beyond the pronouncements as no serious action was taken towards implementing the action plan or the ban promised by the minister. For whatever reason, no law was initiated to back up the plan nor was any serious awareness campaign carried out to prepare the people for the planned ban.

By January 2014 when the ban was supposed to have taken effect, manufacturers of plastic bags continued to produce and claimed that they were unaware of any ban.

Some observers believe that the non-implementation of the ban might not be unconnected with the criticism that followed the minister’s pronouncement. Many viewed the planned ban as anti-people as it would most impact those who depend on the plastic bags as a source of employment or income.

For example, a rights group, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) decried the move as capable of compounding the health problems in the country by denying the people a source of clean drinking water. Its Publicity Secretary, Livingstone Wechie said in an interview that sachet water was serving as an alternative source of potable water, which government failed to provide for the people and banning it would force them into getting water from unclean sources. Other criticisms followed the same lines of argument.

Some health workers, however, differ pointing to the health risks inherent in the sachets used for the water.

One of them, Emeka Aporo, a community health practitioner, argued that plastic materials when exposed to high temperature release oxidants which are harmful to consumers, adding that the rampant improper disposal of the sachets also create environmental nuisance and other problems.

He therefore urged government to develop an alternative to sachet water packaging so that the producers “can remain in business.” His position was supported by a pharmacist, Philomena Akiga who noted that the negative health implication of sachet water consumption was higher than the business purpose of creating jobs.

Is Nigeria undermining neighbouring countries’ bag bans?

The failure to ban plastic bags in Nigeria is currently undermining the efforts of other West African countries that have banned them, because they are now smuggled into those countries from Nigeria and other countries that are yet to place the ban.

This has necessitated calls for some form of regional or sub-regional negotiation and cooperation on the issue.

About 20 African countries including Cameroun which shares border with Nigeria, have banned plastic bags but the plastic are still found in many of them through smuggling.

It is obvious from the various arguments that most people in Nigeria appreciate the health and environmental hazards posed by plastic bags. The social and economic effects of a ban appears to be the point of departure to, as some argue, avoid creating another problem in trying to solve one.

Maybe the answer lies in exploring various suggestions such as the promotion of current efforts to manufacture biodegradable plastic bags or replacing them with foil-coated paper sachets for food packaging and other small items while re-usable canvas bags could be used in shops.

An official of the environment ministry, Patrick Odey disclosed that the action plan for the phasing out of light plastic bags would be re-visited in view of the global agreement on Climate Change to be signed this April.

He said under the agreement, countries are to initiate steps to check factors contributing to global warming and activities that threaten the environment. “You will agree with me that plastic bag constitutes a major problem to our environment. With the excessive rainfall and flooding that we have been experiencing in some parts of the country, blocking of drainages and water ways by plastic bags is a major problem which needs to be tackled”, he said.

Whether the plan would be implemented this time around remains to be seen.

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