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Nigeria’s Plastic Challenge: World Earth Day Focus

World Earth Day is on Monday, and I don’t think it’s too early to say something about it, especially with the urgent need to address the growing threat of plastic pollution around the world. The theme of this year’s commemoration is “Planet vs. Plastics” and it serves as a rallying cry for global action. The focus of the day is about urging individuals, communities, and governments to confront the health risks posed by plastics, phase out single-use plastics, advocate for a robust UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution, and challenge the fast fashion industry.

For Nigeria, the theme resonates strongly because we are currently grappling with the pervasive challenges of plastic pollution. From bustling urban centers to remote rural communities, the impact of plastic waste is keenly felt, endangering ecosystems, threatening public health, and demanding urgent action. With a current population of approximately 200 million and an estimated 400 million people projected by 2050, addressing the issue of plastic waste management is important. Annually, we produce an average of 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste, with Lagos alone generating 870,000 tonnes. These escalating figures raise significant concerns, particularly as the prevalence of plastic waste continues to rise unabated, without targeted measures to mitigate its growth.

Globally, plastic pollution has reached alarming levels, with devastating consequences for ecosystems, wildlife, and human health. From the deepest oceans to the highest mountains, plastic waste has infiltrated every corner of the planet, choking waterways, contaminating soil, and endangering marine life. Single-use plastics, in particular, have emerged as a major contributor to this crisis, accounting for a significant portion of plastic waste generated worldwide. Nigeria is not left out. In major Nigerian cities plastic waste is littering streets, clogging waterways, and polluting natural habitats. Rivers like the Lagos Lagoon and the Niger Delta are choked with plastic debris, posing threats to aquatic life and disrupting fragile ecosystems. In cities like Lagos, the improper disposal of plastic waste exacerbates flooding during the rainy season, thus, increasing the challenges faced by urban residents.

Beyond its environmental impact, plastics pose serious health risks to humans. It remains a growing concern in Nigeria especially in communities where open burning of plastic waste is common leading to the release of toxic fumes that poses respiratory health risks for nearby residents. Additionally, the presence of microplastics in drinking water sources raises concerns about potential long-term health impacts, including hormonal disruptions and reproductive issues. The need to address the health implications of plastic pollution is vital to safeguarding the well-being of Nigerians.

Despite these challenges, the efforts to phase out single-use plastics in Nigeria are gaining momentum, with initiatives aimed at reducing plastic consumption and promoting sustainable alternatives. In cities like Abuja and Port Harcourt, bans on single-use plastics have been introduced to curb plastic waste and encourage the adoption of reusable alternatives. In Lagos, the state government has banned styrofoam (a type of plastic widely used as food containers) and other single-use products. Furthermore, grassroots organizations and community-led initiatives are championing plastic recycling and waste management programs to address the root causes of plastic pollution.

However, we still need to put proper structure in place to address this plastic pollution crisis effectively. I propose that we start by championing an advocacy for legislative action. Just like the world needs an establishment of a strong UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution. There will continue to be a roadblock in the fight against plastic pollution without political will and government intervention through legislation. For instance, as soon as Lagos issued and started to enforce the ban on Styrofoam, concerned citizens became more aware and followed the order – at least from most places I know. Hence, civil society organizations, environmental activists, and concerned citizens must continue to call for the enactment of comprehensive legislation to regulate plastic production, usage, and disposal in Nigeria. By advocating for stronger regulations and enforcement mechanisms, stakeholders can ensure that the burden of plastic pollution is reduced, and environmental sustainability is prioritized.

While we are advocating for effective legislation against plastic waste, we must also design and implement the right policies that bring together key stakeholders, like producers and consumers for adequate information, incentivization, and empowerment to make the right decision for the broader environment. For instance, in London where I reside, shops and supermarkets must charge a fee when you need an extra bag for your purchase. The more bags you need, the more you pay. This policy discourages shoppers from asking for extra plastic bags and encourages the re-use of their bags. I now carry my own bag to shop because little drops of pence make a mighty pound. This kind of policy is not impossible to implement in Nigeria – at least we can start from organised stores and supermarkets.

On the producer and importer side, there must be a tax on plastic packaging components like resins. When producers/importers of plastic packaging components are taxed, it will encourage the use of recycled materials in packaging and reduce the amount of plastic waste generated in Nigeria, especially Lagos. The tax will be enough incentive to persuade companies to switch to more sustainable packaging materials and reduce their carbon footprint. More so, more companies will adopt the popular reduce, reuse, and recycle approach with more recycling opportunities created. This exact kind of policy is already in full force in the UK; maybe we only need to assess its success/failure before we imitate the same in Nigeria.

Furthermore, Nigeria’s national orientation agency must step up. We need a countrywide campaign to educate consumers on the dangers of plastic pollution to public health, the environment, and global climate change. The campaign should not just discourage people to use but provide sustainable alternatives. When we ask people to stop doing something without giving them an alternative, it mostly ends in failure. But with an alternative, the old ways will die a natural death and become obsolete in a short time. Producers should be mandated to educate their customers about proper disposal methods for plastic waste on their products through a product information sticker. The Nigeria National Orientation Agency should not just do this as a one-off but make it an annual ritual to increase and sustain sensitization until it becomes a national culture.

Finally, Nigeria must keep an eye on the global fast fashion industry before it becomes a challenge in our fight to curb plastic pollution. The global fast fashion industry is notorious for its contribution to environmental degradation and waste, and we must not add that to Nigeria’s plastic problem. The production and disposal of clothing, often made from synthetic fibers derived from fossil fuels, generate significant amounts of plastic pollution and carbon emissions. By advocating for sustainable fashion practices, promoting circular economy models, and supporting ethical brands, consumers can play a pivotal role in reducing the environmental footprint of the fashion industry. Lots of education and sensitization is necessary here as well.

As Nigeria commemorates World Earth Day, the imperative to confront plastic pollution and safeguard the environment for future generations is clear. By raising awareness of the environmental and health risks posed by plastic pollution, phasing out single-use plastics, advocating for legislative action, rewriting our environment policies, and implementing innovative solutions, Nigeria can pave the way for a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable future. Let us seize the opportunity presented by World Earth Day to unite in the fight against plastic pollution and embrace a greener, plastic-free Nigeria.

Olamide is a communications professional currently based in London, United Kingdom. He can be reached across social media platforms @olamidefrancis and via francisolamide1@gmail.com.

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