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Plastic pollution: Nigeria’s untapped ‘waste wealth’ fuels environmental disaster

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The level of threat plastic waste poses to man and nature is phenomenal. In a country like Nigeria where unemployment is very high, Afeez Hanafi examines how the sprawling waste can create huge job opportunities along recycling value chain  

In the dead of the night, on July 15, 2018, the cloud that was pregnant with rain the previous evening when residents of the Jibiya Local Government Area of Katsina State went to bed, burst. It rained cat and dog amid breeze that caressed the dwellers to a deep, soothing sleep. But minutes into the downpour, what started as a blessing plunged the neighbourhood into doom and before dawn, flooding had sent 44 – including kids and couples – to their untimely graveyards. Livestock as well as properties estimated at millions of naira were also destroyed with scores of survivors displaced.

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“The cries of neighbours woke my wife and me up, only for us to find out that our house was already flooded. All my livestock were carried away by water. As my wife and I tried to run to safety, there was this sudden rush of water which snatched away our four-month-old baby from her hand. At that point, I can’t explain how we went our separate ways. I can’t explain how I made it. In the morning, we were surrounded and consoled by neighbours over the loss of our only child,” a survivor, 34-year-old Attahiru Abubakar, had recalled tearfully during an encounter with Saturday PUNCH at Muhammadu Rabiu Model Primary School Complex, Jibiya, where those displaced by the flood were camped.

Reacting to the incident, Information Officer in charge of the local government, Sa’ad Suleiman, adduced the disaster to building of some houses on flood plains and dumping of waste in drainage channels. He urged the residents to desist from dumping refuse indiscriminately and inculcate the habit of proper waste disposal.

Two days earlier, on July 13, no fewer than 11 persons reportedly died and properties perished in flooding at Abeokuta, the Ogun State capital. Among the deceased were a food vendor, Halirat Akintobi, and her two sons. About 750 buildings were affected while 6,030 persons were displaced according to the National Emergency Management Agency.

The spokesperson for NEMA, South-West zone, Ibrahim Farinloye and the Ogun State Commissioner for Environment, Bolaji Oyeleye, blamed the flooding on indiscriminate dumping of refuse in drainages and canals.

A commercial bus stuck in plastic-ridden flood in Lagos

“Instead of constructing corresponding adequate drainage systems that can mitigate expected danger, shallow drainage channels were put in place and in some houses, the drainage channels were blocked with wires to glitter waste/garbage,” Farinloye added.

A resident, who identified herself simply as Mrs. Ogunsanwo, had lamented that there was no central refuse collection system in six communities in the state capital, noting that “people usually threw faeces and refuse in the drainage whether it rains or not.”

Arguably, floods wreak havoc seasonally on Nigeria, especially in populated metropolitan cities where plastic bottles, plastic bags (popularly known as polythene bags) and other waste materials crammed drainage channels, thereby hindering free flow of water whenever it rains. Apart from the monumental losses it causes, flood is a potential source of water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

It is common to see people burning waste materials, including plastic, in a desperate attempt to get rid of rubbish from their surroundings. Sadly, most of those who indulge in this unwholesome practice are ignorant of its health implications.

Highlighting the effects of indiscriminate disposal of plastic on land and water, a public health consultant and medical director, Medical Centre of Federal College of Education, Akoka, Lagos, Dr. Rotimi Adesanya, said chemicals emanating from burning and decaying plastic were inimical to health as well as marine life.

Adesanya stated, “The effect of plastic pollution is enormous because plastic items are non-biodegradable; they cannot be broken down. Used plastic bottles that have decayed are source of health dangers to us. When they are indiscriminately disposed by burning which we see in most cases, chemicals that made up the plastics are contained in the fumes which could be inhaled. The chemicals contribute to health conditions such as lung cancer and asthma.

“The same plastics end up in oceans and when they get there, the chemicals are released into the water which animals inhale. The chemicals contain toxic substances that cannot be broken down after the animals inhale them. Ultimately, some of the animals get to the man for consumption and unfortunately, cooking cannot destroy those chemicals. Cooking only breaks down microorganisms like bacteria.

“What we encourage as public health physicians is that plastic should be recycled. Landfill is good; it involves burying of waste. But in areas where there are landfills, there must not be wells or boreholes around there because the chemicals can break down and go deep down to contaminate the water. That is why landfills are situated away from residential areas.

“Recycling is the best way to go. It will save the country from spending money to clear drainages channels and provides employment for many people. Unfortunately, recycling is still at the lowest level in the country. Political will is needed and all stakeholders need to put commitment into recycling.”

While plastic waste and its devastating consequences are not peculiar to Nigeria, many countries have taken bold steps towards managing it. Of waste, plastic products remain the most daunting to manage because as non-biodegradable materials, they take hundreds of years to degrade. And when they eventually do, they break down into smaller toxic bits to contaminate the environment.

Statistics indicate that one million waste plastic bottles are churned out every minute across the world while five trillion plastic bags are generated yearly – about 10 million units every minute. It is also estimated that at least eight million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. The empirical prediction that by 2050, world’s oceans will have more plastic than fishes portends far-reaching dangers and calls for drastic measures to address the menace urgently.

Plastic bales ready for recycling

The overwhelming level of plastic pollution across the globe and its negative impacts on human health and marine creatures culminated in the focus of 2018 World Environment Day entitled, “Beat Plastic Pollution.”

In a statement released in commemoration of the annual event, the Communication Officer, Climate Change and Green Growth Department, African Development Bank, Mrs. Sonia Borrini, said, “100,000 marine animals are killed by plastics and 83 per cent of tap water are found to contain plastic particles. This is alarming and dangerous to the environment.

“In particular, it is impacting the ocean, which is the lungs of our planet, providing most of the oxygen we breathe, major source of food and medicines and a critical part of the biosphere.”

Already, countries like Russia, Canada and Japan have devised different strategies that mandate individuals, households, and businesses to dispose of their waste responsibly for recycling, landfilling and incineration depending on the nature of the waste materials. They have also made policies that directly hold manufacturers responsible for the waste generated from their products. Chief among the policies is the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) which requires manufacturers to monitor the end life of their products to minimise environmental hazards.

The EPR allows a group of manufacturers in the same line of production to come together under a Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) that will jointly manage the waste on their behalf. The policy, among others, is aimed at promoting clean environment, creating jobs along recycling value-chain and encouraging firms to design environmentally-friendly products.

Creating wealth from waste

Lagos State, with a population of about 23 million, generates 14,000 metric tons of solid waste daily – almost half of what obtains in the entire country. In 2015, Mariam Lawani, a graduate of Environmental Micro-Biology got tired of the stench that oozed from heaps of used plastic stuck in the drainage along her street in the Isolo area of the state.

Much as she and other residents tried to clear off the rubbish, the drains got blocked again after almost every rainfall. Determined to stop the ugly trend, the 32-year-old arrived at recycling as a long-term solution. She dropped her highly-rewarding teaching job at a British school in the state and set up a recycling enterprise that deals in processing of used polythylene terephthalate bottles (otherwise known as PET or plastic bottles), cans and water sachets.

With a baling machine she bought for N4m, she compresses the waste items into bails and sells to macro recyclers for production of synthetic fibres, cotton, ropes, toys, bags, rubbers, plastic, among others.

Before setting up the firm, the founder of Greenhill Recycling embarked on sensitisation across the neighborhood and introduced incentive models ranging from consumables, detergent, appliances, smart phones and laptops to persuade residents, restaurant operators and school administrators to bring forth used PET bottles, cans and water sachets they generated in exchange for an incentive which is measured by the quantity of the waste.

“We also work with independent waste collectors who sell in large quantities to us. We recover waste from houses, hotels, restaurants, workplace, event centres, schools etc to stop landfill,” Lawani stated while narrating how she went into the business to Saturday PUNCH at her collection centre in Isolo.

“I saved up and started the business in 2015. I engaged seven staff members and at a point, I gave up my teaching job. A lot of people don’t realise that these waste items could cause harm to them until you let them see the reason,” she added.

In Ilorin, Kwara State capital, Temitope Amusa is also into processing of PET bottles in bales. With 35 staff currently in his employ, the chemistry graduate never regretted his decision to resign from a pharmaceutical coy where he was a quality control analyst. “Although it is largely the survival of the fittest especially here where the state government doesn’t care about rendering any assistance, we have been doing well,” Amusa stated.

Lawani and Amusa are two of a few individuals who have ventured into small scale recycling in Nigeria as evident in the large percentage of unmanaged waste plastic across communities in the country. A report released by the Lagos State Government in 2017 stated that less than 30 per cent of over 13,000 metric tons of waste generated in the state daily is recycled.

A rapid increase in the population and number of plastic-based products has also made waste management taxing. Many beverage companies that hitherto produced with crystal bottles have changed to PET bottles to cut cost.

Huge job opportunities wasting away

A woman paddling a canoe on a water littered with plastic

In its statistics in the third quarter of 2017, National Bureau of Statistics revealed that out of active labour force of 85.08 million people in Nigeria, about 16 million people were unemployed. The figure comprised 8.5 million people who engaged in an economic activity for at least an hour and 7.5 million people “who did absolutely nothing.”

As a result of the overwhelming unemployment rate in the country, there has been much pressure on the government to provide empowerment and create enabling environment for people to explore small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Thus, when the National Environmental Standard Regulations and Enforcement Agency of the Federal Ministry of Environment joined other countries in 2015 to implement EPR policy in the beverage sector, recycling entrepreneurs like Lawani and Amusa reveled in excitement, anticipating a boom that the enforcement would bring to their business on one hand and the considerable tidiness environment would witness on the other.

In response to the policy, Coca-Cola, Nigerian Bottling Company, Nestle Nigeria Plc, Seven Up Bottling Company and Nigerian Breweries Plc formed Food and Beverage Alliance Recycling (FBRA) as their Producer Responsibility Organisation. Apart from the fact that the operation of the PRO was still evolving since it was created more than two years ago, hundreds of firms that produced plastic-based products like bottled water and cosmetics have yet to embrace the trend to create job opportunities in the recycling sector.

To buttress the fact that the FBRA is at its nascent stage, its Chairman, Mrs. Sade Morgan, in a statement on Wednesday, announced collaboration with the Lagos State Government, to rid the state’s waterways of plastic and packaging waste.

“This announcement is just one step in the initial phase of a long-term commitment to effective plastic waste management. We are committed to tackling one of the biggest issues threatening the sustainability of our planet and are excited about the positive impact this will have on our industry, and the nation at large,” she added.

The chairman stated that the FBRA would provide funding for equipment and personnel training while the state government would be responsible for structural civil works, managing execution, personnel, waste sorting centres and enforcement. She added that the FBRA and state government would jointly fund public awareness campaigns and advocacy on appropriate packaging waste disposal systems.

With effective EPR, Amusa, the recycling entrepreneur in Ilorin, projected that his staff capacity would grow by 265 persons within a year or two as the producers would have to engage collectors at local communities to manage the end life of their products for recycling.

“There will be a geometric replication of the model across every nook and cranny of the North Central and other parts of the country. The best way for the companies to go about it is to look for recyclers at the grass roots and leverage on that network to make impact on the environment.

“We are in a country where everybody does what they like. EPR is not really taking effects. Companies should be responsible for not just their products but the waste of their products after their lifecycle,” he added.

Managing plastic pollution

Apart from the cost of land for setting up a recycling centre, acquiring a baling machine like that of Lawani for the crushing of recovered plastic costs between N3m and N5m. Investigations by our correspondent showed that it costs at least N50m to acquire a machine for the recycling of crushed plastic into finished products.

An environmentalist and Managing Director, Global Consulting, Mr. Uba Godwin, observed that capital intensive nature of recycling discouraged many people from going into it.

“Government can fund the machinery which is the major challenge of a common man who wants to set up recycling business. The government can buy the machines and monitor what is being done. If they cannot fund individually, they can fund in cooperative. Grants should be given to social entrepreneurs who are into recycling, especially in the area of procuring land for them to set up the business.

“The best way to stop plastic pollution is to recycle. Plastic pollution is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

“Government should set up waste bins across the country and encourage people to go into the recycling business by giving them tax incentives. In Malaysia, there are bins for different kinds of waste and they take them to where they will be recycled,” Godwin stated.

A lecturer at Department of Employment Relations and Human Resource Management, University of Lagos, Dr. Dumebi Ideh, said the disturbing rate of plastic pollution was a challenge that could be exploited by micro recycling firms like those of Lawani and Amusa as well as macro ones. He urged the government to intervene by providing financial and technical assistance and embarking on massive sensitisation to proper waste disposal.

The don enjoined relevant bodies to organise seminars and workshops to educate people on the opportunities in the recycling sector, adding that government should encourage like-minded people to come under a cooperative and establish recycling outfits at micro and macro levels.

He said, “The quantity of plastic in the country is enormous. People have predicted that at a point in time, we will have more plastic in seas than fishes. That is a major problem and something has to be done. Plastic products can be recycled and it will help to generate jobs for the unemployed.

“Recycling is a big industry because most of the things produced now are plastic-driven. Plastic is used for packaging goods and it cuts across the length and breadth of this country. If there are recycling firms in every state and local government, the number of people that will be employed – directly and indirectly – will be large. Once people know there are places they can take plastic to, more people will get engaged in the picking.

“Energy is also a major issue that the government should address. The government also needs to provide financial and intellectual support by letting people know the opportunities in that line of business. When people know that by taking off plastic, they are not only making money but are also helping the ecosystem, more people will buy into it.”

Recently at an event organised in Lagos to commemorate Earth Day 2018, the Deputy High Commissioner, British High Commission, Ms. Laure Beaufils, said recycling of plastic and other waste would boost the economic status of Nigeria.

The envoy said, “It (waste) is a global issue and it is fantastic that Nigeria is also stepping in on issues bordering on eradicating plastic waste. A lot more needs to be done and it is fantastic that even by tackling the issues, the communities and individuals can make money from recycling.”

Recycling, win-win for manufacturers, economy and environment

The Group Managing Director, Sona Group, Mr. Ajai Musaddi, explained that recycling had a multiplier effect of reducing cost of production, the burden of sourcing foreign exchange to import virgin resin – raw materials used for manufacturing – and creating employment.

Musaddi, who also oversees, Shongai Packaging Industry, a plastic producing company in Ota, Ogun State, said the sorry sight of plastic-ridden drainage channels and canals stuffed called for urgent action from government and industries in the country.

He said, “Everybody should be self-responsible for whatever they produce; they should be able to recycle it. Waste plastic when recycled will create a lot of benefits apart from environmental benefits. It will create a lot of employment for Nigerians because a lot of people will be involved in the collection of garbage. It also helps the government to reduce the burden of foreign exchange.

“If you import one time, you may not need to import second time if you manage the garbage plastics very well. It is a recycling chain which has a lot of benefits. If you produce from recycled items, it is cost effective. If you produce the same thing with virgin materials, it is more costly. The cost benefit gives leverage for the affordability of the people because Nigerian market is not a rich market.”

The Sona Group boss identified collection points as the major challenge in recycling. He enjoined the government to assist individuals interested in recycling to set up collection centres in communities, “where plastic can be collected and sorted before they get to the main recyclers.”

“The future of recycling in Nigeria is good because the volume of plastic is increasing and affordability of people is always very low. So, to give anything at lower price, recycling helps a lot,” he added.

 EPR: NESREA promises to ensure compliance

In an interview with Saturday PUNCH, the Director General, NESREA, Dr. Lawrence Anukam, said EPR was evolving with two PROs managing waste from electronic and beverage sectors. He promised that the agency would provide oversight functions to make sure that the companies aligned with the terms of the PROs.

Asked the level of compliance by the factories, especially the beverage sectors that use plastic, Anukam said, “It is a process. They have to organise members of the PRO properly. What we expect from them now is to make sure we have the critical number of those involved in the PRO. The beverage sector is being championed by some of those big companies in the sector. There is a lot of promise of everybody getting together for compliance.”

The DG said all hands must be on deck for the policy to be a success, adding that consumers were being sensitised to the proper disposal of single-used plastic bottles.

“In the EPR, we have the consumers, the collectors, the distributors and the recyclers. It is a chain and the state governments will be involved too. In the long run, plastic producers will come under the beverage sector PRO.

“Sensitisation is a continuous process. The government and the industries will be involved in various forms of sensitisation. There will also be sanctions for non-compliance,” he added.

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