Plastic litter is a common sight on the streets of Nigeria, take a look at the gutters, streets and dustbins you will usually find plastics in them. These plastics seem invisible, or perhaps we have gotten so used to them we ignore them. In fact, on your next walk try to notice them, try to count the number of plastics you will see on the road before you get to your destination, you might be surprised. These plastics will take about 400-1000 years to decompose because they are so durable, they clog waterways causing flooding and they are contributing to the damage of the environment.
Plastics are created from natural gas, oil/plants which are refined into ethane and propane. The ethane and propane go through a process called cracking which transforms them into the monomers, ethylene, and propylene. These monomers are then combined to create polymers, polymers are transformed into pellets and it is the pellets that are used by the factories to create the finished products such as bakelite, PVC, acrylic, and nylons. Though the process sounds very technical, plastics are easy to produce and they can be produced cheaply. Plastics are so commonplace that you can find them in most things be it in phones, appliances, food packaging, toys, and furniture etc. Since it is used in excess by society, it has become a large part of waste.
Most plastic waste finds its way into the ocean and if this continues there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish by 2050. Plastics are already proving hazardous to marine animals who swallow them up, often killing these animals because the plastic does not digest in them. There is another form of plastic that is dangerous called microplastics. Microplastics are plastic environmental pollutants that are 5.00mm or less than 5.00mm in size. They can come from the breakdown of larger plastics or they are manufactured to be tiny. Microplastics find their way into marine animals and humans as they are consumed one way or the other. They are found in shellfish, honey, salt and tap water which are consumed by humans and may be dangerous to them, although results prove to be inconclusive.
While dealing with microplastics is another thing, the effect of plastic pollution can be felt economically, especially in riverine areas. Plastic litter does not only deface a neighborhood reducing its aesthetics it can interfere with the livelihood of people who depend on fishing for survival. For example, according to a BBC report done in Port Harcourt, fishermen are finding it difficult to catch fishes because of plastic waste, instead, they catch plastics and nylons. One man went as far as saying it was so difficult to catch fishes that could be sold for N1,000 because of the litter, ensuring that these people get poorer. A hidden cost here is that fishes may be disappearing from our rivers, which may in turn cause a shortage of food. The report also noted that the Ntawogba creek which flows through Port Harcourt and empties into the Delta is so full of thrash that plastic scavengers go through it to look for plastic to resell, showing how increasingly polluted our water bodies are.
Plastic is not all bad, it is used in medicine to create life-saving devices, it is used for daily items like our tooth brushes, it can even save fuel but its excess and its irresponsible use is a problem that needs to be dealt with. We need to educate people about plastics and companies that contribute to plastic litter should do more in helping to curb plastic pollution. According to an audit done by Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development (SRADev Nigeria), Kids Beach Garden and Beach Samaritans, the top plastic polluters in Lagos, Nigeria as of November 2019 were Bigi, Pepsi, Nova, C-Way table water, and Coca Cola. Although this does not include other forms of plastics, it shows that large brands also have a big part to play in plastic pollution.
We should try as much as possible to not use disposable plastics and instead focus on reusable plastics. Single-use plastic increases the number of plastics in the environment and we should be working towards their reduction. Nigeria is no stranger to reusing plastics, market women use old plastic bottles to sell items like palm oil and traditional drinks. We should still consciously choose as individuals and businesses to find ways to reuse our plastics while shying away from plastics that we can use and throw away immediately. Although not every form of plastic can be recycled, recycling is a major way to keep plastics off the streets. We need to become more recycling friendly and have more recycling stations opened in different cities in Nigeria. To make recycling and proper plastic disposal more attractive, the government should create incentives that will encourage citizens to recycle and be responsible about their plastic waste.
While we are reducing the number of plastics in the wild, we should educate others about why we need to minimize our plastic use, we should let others know about how plastics clog our waterways and cause flooding, how it releases toxic chemicals into the water and soil, how it breaks down to emit the greenhouse gases methane and ethylene, how it is reducing fishes in the sea and how it reduces the earning potential of some people. These are discussions we should be having to create awareness of this growing menace.
Though plastics are cheap and useful they can be harmful to the environment. Unless we make effort, most of these plastics will end up defacing our environment, polluting the ocean and other water bodies while continuing to cause greenhouse gasses that pollute the environment as they break down. We need to ensure that we use plastic responsibly, prevent plastics from entering water bodies, find ways to effectively manage plastic waste and recycle to protect the environment.