A key theme at this year’s United Nations Environment Assembly in Kenya is plastic pollution. It will be returning to a theme from 2018 World Environment Day. The evidence for the prevalence and consequences of plastic pollution has been building up and the assembly needs to lead action on this issue.
Individuals, communities, businesses, and governments all have a part to play to reduce plastic pollution in their environments.
The 2018 World Environment Day provided much-needed impetus for some countries to launch or appraise their plastic pollution initiatives. An example is India, which committed itself to proscribing and eliminating all single-use plastics in all Indian states by 2022. Many Indian states have keyed into this initiative and a national ban on most single-use plastics is due to take effect from 1 July 2022.
Unfortunately, Nigeria hasn’t done much in this regard. Compared to other developing countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, its commitments to combating plastic pollution are far below average.
Plastic pollution thrives in Nigeria
Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity of nearly 16 million people, produces between 13,000 and 15,000 tonnes of waste per day, including 2,250 tonnes of plastic, according to a local recycling business.
Nigerian lawmakers considered a bill in 2019 to prohibit the use of plastic bags. The bill is still in limbo. It is yet to undergo further reading and has not been enacted into law. Consequently, plastic bags are being indiscriminately used in Nigeria.
The evidence of the harm this does is mounting.
My research group published the first empirical finding of freshwater microplastics in Nigeria. We used snails from the Osun River in southwest Nigeria as biological indicators of plastic pollution. Snails in the river had consumed polyethylene plastic bags, which were common along riverbanks.
We have also found plastic polymers such as polyester, polypropylene, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, styrene-ethylene butylene styrene, and chlorinated polyethylene in the Osun and Ogun Rivers. The plastic polymers recorded in our study are traceable to different sources such as textiles, biscuit wrappers, automotive tyre cords, bottle caps, and drinking straws. We also saw larger items in the rivers, such as tyres, plastic bags and plastic bottles. Studies indicate that such plastics could affect the life history, survival, growth and development of insect larvae into adults.
Our studies of plastic pollution in Nigeria, particularly freshwater and marine environments, have recorded plastics in fish too.
Read more: Why microplastics found in Nigeria's freshwaters raise a red flag
Effects of plastics
When animals ingest plastics, it blocks the gut and windpipe and reduces their physiological fitness. Aquatic animals can also become entangled in plastics, resulting in malnutrition and death.
Plastics degrade the aesthetic value of Nigerian landscapes and aquatic systems. This compromises cultural ecosystem services such as ecotourism.
Read more: Lagos beaches have a microplastic pollution problem
Plastic pollution has become such a serious problem in Nigeria that it has virtually become a sign of human activity or visits to a location. People who visit beaches, riverbanks, parks and waterfalls frequently dump their plastic bottles carelessly, despite the dangers that such plastics pose to the environment.
In one case, plastic bottles were found at a natural site where an ecologically important rare insect was found.
Our studies show that plastic can affect the water-holding capacity of drains, river channels and reservoirs. This leads to flooding of adjacent lands and loss of biological diversity and livelihoods.
Losing natural sites to plastic pollution also means people don’t get the health benefits of outdoor activity.
Read more: Nigerian river snails carry more microplastics than Rhine snails
Action to end plastic pollution in Nigeria
Combating plastic pollution in Nigeria will require action on several fronts.
The first step will be to address poor waste management practices prevalent in the country.
Also, businesses will have to stop providing free plastic bags. These bags are often discarded after a single use.
Read more: Kenya should be focused on recycling, not banning plastic bags
To discourage the practice, governments should levy a high fee on each plastic bag that shoppers get at malls and markets. Paying for a bag could discourage people from discarding them after a single use. Paper bags, used in Uganda, should be encouraged. Since packaging is the leading cause of plastic pollution in the environment, the Nigerian government needs to launch a campaign and crack down on plastic bags and bottles in the country. The public will need to be educated on the three Rs: reduce, recycle, and reuse plastic materials.
Water sachets and bottles have proliferated in Nigeria due to a lack of drinkable water in many homes. The government needs to educate the public about the dangers of discarding water sachets and bottles in the environment. And it must ensure access to clean water.
Whatever strategy the government employs will be ineffective unless the long-awaited “plastic pollution bill” is passed by Nigerian legislators and swiftly signed into law.
Citizens and leaders have the responsibility of bequeathing an environment that future Nigerians can be proud of. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and other countries have taken steps to protect their environments from more plastic pollution. Nigeria can no longer afford to wait.