AnalysesEnvironment & Climate Change

Noble Intentions And Bitter Businesses As Nigeria Pushes Back On Plastic Waste

Nigeria has a reputation of being one of the highest plastic-consuming and producing countries in Africa. It’s trying to do something about it.

As a teenager, all of Abimbola Aremu’s needs were met. But as she grew, a sense of responsibility developed in her. She wanted to contribute her quota or at least relieve her caregivers. Fifteen years ago, she contemplated how to achieve this. Then the idea beamed in her mind: polybags. She held some she had just been sent to purchase and thought of how indispensable they had become to most households and businesses. 

And like that, she started as a retailer in the Alimosho area of Lagos, Nigeria’s South West region. She gradually rose to become a sub-distributor with customers across the state. Her stock hardly lasts a week as roadside and small food vendors troop to her to purchase her food packaging products, which now included styrofoam, popularly called takeaway. Business boomed and Aremu made a stable income.

This is not surprising because of the affordability, durability, and portability of single-use plastic products, which are largely imported from the United States of America, the Republic of Korea, and India.

Nigeria has a reputation of being one of the highest plastic-consuming and producing countries in Africa. According to a 2021 study, between 1996 and 2017, it imported more than 20 million tonnes of plastics. The country also produced 2.3 million tonnes of primary plastics, and in 2013 alone, plastic product companies in Nigeria had a production capacity of over 100,000 tonnes per year.

This was of great benefit to Nigeria’s plastic economy, providing a stable means of income to business owners like Aremu and an affordable means of packaging for Nigerians.

Aremu’s once-booming plastic business, however, suddenly began to decline when the Lagos State Government saw the need to regulate the constant consumption of the material.

Why the regulation?

In the third week of January, the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources in Lagos declared a ban on the production and distribution of single-use plastics, including styrofoam, “with immediate effect”.

The constant use of plastics in Nigeria, particularly single-use plastics, results in indiscriminate littering and improper disposal in landfills, drainages, and ocean bodies, causing negative environmental impacts like flooding in Lagos and other places across the country. 

Aremu reasoned with the state government because she knew that styrofoam, for example, causes cancer. She also knew it usually ends up in landfills and waterways after use. 

“The materials used [in the production] are very dangerous to human health,” she told HumAngle via a phone call in February. “Personally, I observed that when these products expire, they will breed insects.”

The problem, according to Dr Muhammad Bello Ibrahim, a lecturer at the University of Maiduguri, is that styrofoam hardly decomposes.

“By the time it combines with other chemical activities, it produces a lot of gases which are not friendly to the environment,” he told HumAngle. “And it will be affecting the quality of life, particularly of plants, humans, and aquatic life. Lagos is a place where we have a lot of water. By the time this styrofoam overcomes water bodies, it will definitely affect aquatic life, perhaps reducing the population of fish, crayfish, and other seafood. And that will be a very big minus to the marine or blue economy of Lagos state.”

But the impacts do not stop here. Plastic equally fuels climate change. 

A 2021 study by the Heinrich Böll Foundation notes that the production of plastics, particularly single-use, is one of the largest and fastest-growing contributors to the emission of carbon dioxide. And if the current consumption and indiscriminate disposal continue, “they will have caused around 56 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050”.

The study further notes that some of the fabrics we wear have some percentages of plastic. Polyester and other synthetic fibres are made from petroleum or natural gas. Making a polyester shirt may emit between 3.8 and 7.1 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, methane and an array of other greenhouse gases are released at each stage of the plastics life cycle—from the extraction and refining of fossil fuels to the energy-intensive processes that produce plastic resins to the disposal, incineration, and potential environmental release of waste plastics.

Dr Ibrahim notes that by reducing plastic use, the rate of cancer infections will also reduce while general environmental sanitation will improve.

The broader picture

Following the steps of the Lagos government, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment similarly announced in January a discontinuation of the use of single-use plastics at its headquarters and its agencies to drive a culture of waste reduction. The Abia state government then took a similar step.

Perhaps motivated by this, Nigeria’s House of Representatives on Wednesday, Feb. 14, urged the Federal Government to ban the production, importation, distribution, and use of styrofoam and single-use plastics. This was followed by Oyo State’s legislative arm similarly urging a ban on the use of styrofoam for food purposes.

The Nigerian government had in 2013 announced a ban on plastic shopping bags and plastic sachets of drinking water. Later, in 2018, the legislature proposed a bill to prohibit the use, manufacture, importation, and sale of plastic bags in the country. Defaulters are to pay a fine of 500,000 naira (about $340) for individuals and five million naira (about $3,300) for companies. They also risked a prison sentence of not less than three years.

At least 60 per cent of countries across Africa have similarly placed bans on plastics. For instance, Eritrea adopted an outright ban in 2005 and Rwanda in 2008, setting the pace for others. Not all these countries have, however, recorded successes.

Sustainable implementation

When the Lagos State Ministry of Environment announced the ban, it directed the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and the Kick Against Indiscipline to enforce it. The ministry emphasised the need to crack down on production companies and distribution outlets dealing in styrofoams to prevent further environmental damage.

Acting on this, government agents paid visits to stores and warehouses across the state. “When they came to my store, they gave me an ultimatum of seven days to get rid of all the styrofoam in stock. However, I told them that I have no stock in the store except the expired ones,” Aremu recalled.

She alleges that the government has not provided any support to affected business owners such as herself. 

Dr Temitope Sogbanmu, a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos’ Ecotoxicology and Conservation Unit, recommends that for the enforcement to be sustainable, “the ban should be done sequentially. Non-essential uses, such as fizzy drinks and beverages packaging, should be targeted first.”

“This should be done while providing affordable alternatives and encouraging the production and use of sustainable materials,” she adds. 

“For example, potable water needs to be provided by the government at accessible and affordable prices as an alternative to sachet and plastic bottled water. Strategic stakeholder engagement for monitoring, advocacy and buy-in is also key. It is important to carry along the private and informal sectors which drive the single-use plastics value chain.”

She suggests that monitoring is harmonised across states and national institutions to track progress. Dr Ibrahim also recommends investments in regulatory agencies and says the public should be educated so they understand the need for eco-friendly practices.

Are there alternatives?

Some of the alternatives to plastic bags that have been used include paper bags, woollen bags, jute bags, and organic bags.

When Dr Ibrahim was undergoing his doctoral studies at the Universiti Putra in Malaysia, the management placed a ban on the use of styrofoam and other single-use plastics on campus. “Any food vendor within the university has to switch from using styrofoam to using paper wrappers,” he recalled. “A lot of countries are now providing customised papers which can be used to wrap whatever kind of food in. And these papers will be biodegradable.”

There are several other alternatives. One of them is leaves. “You can wrap your akara, your moi-moi and other things in it,” noted Dr Ibrahim. “By the time you finish eating and discard it into the dustbin, when it gets to the dump sites, it will certainly decay and will even increase the fertility of the land.”

These leaves, known as ewe eran and ewe gbodogi in Yoruba and uma in Igbo, are what Iya Olofada, a local food vendor in Lagos, uses to wrap her ofada rice. “When I cook it, I will now wrap it inside the leaf, that green leaf.”

The plants are found across West Africa and parts of Congo. They are cultivated largely for their broad, tough leaves used for food wrapping and also for making thatch roofs. The stalks are used in weaving. The leaves contribute to the economy of rural communities in Southern Nigeria, and are said to be rich in flavonoid, alkaloids, saponin, tannin anthraquinones, steroids, and thaumatin.

According to Iya Olofada, “The leaves are available in the market. And depending on your need and capacity, the price ranges from ₦200 to ₦5,000 [$3]. They use it in wrapping moi-moi [bean pudding], eko [steamed corn starch], ishakpa [an Ijebu delicacy made from corn], ogi [corn starch], among others.”

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