Of Humanity, Plastics And The Environment

Plastic wastes at a receptacle

Many scientists, academics, politicians, activists and other experts have argued, and ferociously, too, that the health of the environment is under serious threat from pollution, degradation and climate change. A number of reasons have been adduced to justify these arguments.
The United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres’ said during this year’s World Environment Day on June 5: that “Without a healthy environment, we cannot end poverty or build prosperity. We all have a role to play in protecting our only home: we can use less plastic, drive less, waste less food and teach each other to care”.
The importance the world attaches to the preservation and protection of the environment needs no emphasis. The themes for World Environment Day celebration over the last eight years at least; justify this.
Driven by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the World Environment Day was established by UN General Assembly in 1972 to draw global attention towards the preservation of Earth’s natural environment and promote sustainable utilization of resources.
Speaking on this year’s theme: “Beat Plastic Pollution”, stakeholders, expressed concern that certain deliberate human habits and desires have helped to worsen the status of the environment.
Scientists and researchers say that careless disposal of plastics causes ecological deaths of 700 species of marine wildlife, and kills up to one million sea birds per year. Plastics undermine the aesthetics of the environment; choke soils leading to retardation of agricultural yields; block drainages which result in flash floods; disrupt infra-functions; occupy space and emit greenhouse gases in landfills; and potentially poison both food and water. Besides, plastics affect marine and freshwater fish in many ways. Indeed, plastic pollution causes injuries to the external surface and intestine of marine and freshwater fish; surface of plastic in water colonized by algae emits DMS harmful to fish; while reducing the market value of fish.
Aside the negative effects on marine and freshwater fish, plastic pollution also has direct severe consequences on human lives because of the numerous additives used in the production of plastics. For instance, monomers of polyurethanes, PAN and PVCs, and monomers of PE, PP and polyvinyl acetate are hazardous to human health. Similarly, Solvents (e.g. methanol, cyclohexane), Initiators (potassium persulfate), Catalysts like ZnO and CuCl2 are toxic, just as Bisphenol-A (BPA) in water and baby bottles is an endocrine disruptor. Also, dioxins in PVC, phthalates and other plasticizers (in PVC and other plastics) are endocrine disruptors; styrene in take-away containers is linked to respiratory/cancer problems; while antimony leachates cause diarrhea, vomiting and stomach ulcers.
Studies show that the problem of plastic pollution is global, and affects virtually every household, including the rich and the poor, young, adult and aged irrespective of social backgrounds. This is because plastics have no boundaries. Plastics are non-biodegradable, but amenable to wear and tear as well as photo-degradation. Plastics have lifespan as long as a 1000 years; and their poisonous consequences affect more than half of the world’s over three billion population.
In fact, scientists say that 8.3billion tonnes of plastics were produced as at mid-2017; with 6.3billion tonnes dumped on the Earth surface while 2million single-use plastic bags were littered every minute. They also argue that out of the total production, only about nine per cent is recycled; 12 per cent incinerated; 79 per cent deposited in landfills; and 150million tonnes dumped in the oceans thereby creating an hysteria with 28,750 pieces of plastic – more than the population of marine lives – left to float on each square kilometre of our oceans. Awful?
Senior Research Adviser, Environmental Team, Shell Petroleum Development Company Nigeria Limited (SPDC), Prof Arthur Esaaghah, is one of the many academic researchers in Nigeria who have spent advocated for attitudinal change towards the use of plastics, particularly in the coastal Niger Delta region.
At a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) projects’ exhibition of innovative, eco-friendly works of 120 secondary school students organised by SPDC in partnership with Science Teachers Association of Nigeria (STAN) in Port Harcourt, recently, Esaaghah, whose lead presentation focused on how to “Beat Plastic Pollution”, argued that in the next couple of years, the quantum of plastics in our oceans would overrun the population of aquatic lives, including fishes. He also noted that human beings now live at the mercy of plastic wastes, which compete to degrade the environment while also poisoning food, water and causing serious complications to life expectancy and good health of the people, as up to 60 to 170million tons of plastic wastes are littered in streets, drains and streams.
Esaaghah regretted that in spite of the huge challenges, many governments and communities in Africa don’t have effective plastic waste policy and management systems, incentives, financial instruments, and have weak MSW institutions. He listed other problems to include poor collection, collation and sorting systems, almost non-existent standard plastic receptacles and recycling facilities and the use of sub-standard plastic bags – some less than 20milimetres thick.
He, therefore, suggested more collaborative efforts among all stakeholders at the global scale to curb the menace. Esaaghah recommends urgent review and update of existing agreements on plastic waste production, use and disposal; enhancement of enforcement and monitoring mechanisms; publication of periodic reports to compel compliance with regulations; and advocacy and publicity of best practices. At the national and state levels, the professor recommended the development and enforcement of workable policies that set plastic waste limits, DRSs and EPRs; insists on targets and incentives for recycling; imposes subsidises and tax credits for recycling; and bans use of plastic bags.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), in line with its commitment to a green and low carbon economy, has begun the implementation of a new policy that emphasises the recycling of all paper waste into tissue paper, which it now donates to the society as part of its corporate social responsibility.
Confirming this step at this year’s celebration of WED in Abuja, CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, explained that “management is also in the process of concluding the recycling of our polymer note wastes into everyday plastics such as flower pots, dustbins, among others, and the disposal of our electronic waste in an environmentally-sound manner.”
With the alarm raised by the MacArthur Foundation report to the World Economic Forum in 2016 indicating that just only 14 per cent of plastics used in packaging is collected for recycling globally, resulting in a yearly loss of between $80billion and $120billion to the world economy, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Sustainable Development Goals, Princess Adegoke Orelope-Adefulire, agrees that there is an urgent need to beat cautious retreat on plastic use.
She noted that “We throw away enough plastics to cycle the earth four times every year”, adding that “For the good of the planet, it’s time to rethink how we use plastics. Every year, 500billion plastic bags are used around the world; 13million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean; 17million barrels of oil are used on plastic production; and 83 per cent of tap water is found to contain plastic particles. This is alarming and dangerous to the environment”.
Minister of State for Environment, Ibrahim Jibrin, agrees with Orelope-Adefulire, and added that the ministry has packaged policy targets and regulatory benchmarks aimed at reducing plastic pollution in Nigeria. He re-echoed the position of Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, that the Federal Government was partnering some state governments to develop a waste recycling programme that involves the establishment of recycling plants in states, while pushing multinational corporations to key into the initiative to drive the project with state and local governments and the communities.
Already, some recycling plants have emerged in Kwara, Kogi, Nasarawa and Lagos states. In Lagos, Visionscape Sanitation Solutions is already implementing strategies to add value to plastic waste value chain. The Waste-To-Wealth plant in Igbo-Etche and Scrap-To-Wealth facility in Kiira, Rivers State only requires rehabilitation to be functional in line with the thinking of Sole Administrator, Rivers State Waste Management Authority (RIWAMA), Bro Felix Obuah, to redefine waste management solutions in the state.
Aligning with reality, Group Managing Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Dr Maikanti Baru, assured that the corporation has finalised strategies to, henceforth, employ the “principle of the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – to achieve goal zero of no harm to people, and no harm to environment throughout its operations.”
However, the Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice, Eze Onyekpere, said that beyond the desire to beat plastic pollution this year, the Nigerian Constitution places an obligation on the government to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the water, air, land, forest and wildlife of the country.
Onyekpere, therefore, challenged the government to “take policy and legal steps to reduce plastic pollution; ensure prioritisation of climate-smart agriculture and reforestation; set up Environmental Protection and Rehabilitation Fund to be financed by all stakeholders; support and mobilise resources for renewable energy use; implement the two per cent per year energy efficient target in the Paris Climate Change Agreement; and mainstream low carbon framework into Nigeria’s budgeting system and increase allocation to the environment sector in federal and state budgets by not less than two per cent of overall budget.”
The activist also called for “urgent and targeted steps to address deforestation and desertification through increased resource mobilisation, greater accountability, transparency and prudence in resource expenditure while involving the communities in the interventions, particularly to clean-up oil pollution in Ogoniland and the entire Niger Delta, just as it takes concrete action to check the incidence of ‘black soot’ in Rivers State, arising from illegal oil bunkering activities.”


Nelson Chukwudi