On Tuesday last week, June 5, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo lamented over plastic pollution while speaking at an event to mark the 2018 World Environmental Day. The United Nations [UN] has set aside June 5, every year as a day to reflect upon the environmental state of the earth. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the indiscriminate use of plastics all over the world would make it to outnumber fish in the oceans by 2050.
Osinbajo described plastic pollution as an environmental epidemic created daily by consumption habits that favour the one-off use of plastic bags, plastic bottles, disposable cups, sweet wrappers and toys. He said most of the waste items will take between 500 to 1,000 years to degrade; adding that much of the un-burnt or un-recycled plastics which could be in excess of 4.5 billion tons ended up in the oceans.
According to Osinbajo, plastics find their way into human meals through their consumption by fish and other marine creatures that eat plastics that were broken into smaller pieces by salt and sunlight. A study commissioned by the International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC], an agency of the World Health Organization [WHO], revealed that a common chemical used in plastic packaging, disposable cups and rubber can cause cancer in humans. The chemical called styrene is used to make latex, synthetic rubber and polystyrene resins to produce disposable plastics for packaging food and drinks.
Osinbajo also said the Ministry of Environment has developed a national strategy for phasing out non-biodegradable plastics. He said eight plants have already been completed and handed over to states while 18 others are at various stages of completion. He further said two privately run waste management programs are being supported by government. They are ‘Bola Jari,’ a Hausa expression for ‘Waste is wealth’ in Gombe State and ‘Leda jari,’ another Hausa translation of ‘nylon is wealth’ in Kano state.
The VP said micromarketing of fast moving consumer goods such as drinking water that is packaged in sachets (otherwise called ‘pure water’) and the retailing of detergents, sugar and milk in sachets have all proved to be an effective means of selling food and beverages in affordable portions to millions of consumers, making non-plastic options for retailing goods limited. Osinbajo, nonetheless, said sale of items in cellophane bags may be easier to deal with since Rwanda, Kenya and Bangladesh are among countries that have successfully banned the use of cellophane bags.
We urge government to ban the use of nylon and cellophane bags used respectively for retailing fast moving goods and for shopping purposes. in place of plastics, paper and paper-coated materials made from used newspapers could be used for retailing fast food or drinks and as take away packs. The proposed ban of these plastic materials should be preceded by enlightenment campaigns that will raise public awareness about the effect of single-use plastics on human health and the environment.
The campaign should discourage restaurants, stores and supermarkets from using cellophane bags and straws and embrace the use of bio-degradable wraps. Individuals should be urged to review their plastic habits by reducing their use of disposable plastics. Government should, through public education, promote the three ‘Rs’ of waste management which are ‘Reduce, Reuse and Recycle’. They should be cheered to carry their own non-plastic coffee mugs and cutleries to their workplaces instead of using disposable cups, forks and knives; take their own shopping bags to supermarkets; and to use bio-degradable containers in place of disposable plastics to collect take-away food from cafeterias or buffets.
Manufacturers should be encouraged to seek environmentally-friendly options for packaging their products and should be held responsible for the entire life-cycle of their plastic products. When the proposed ban comes into force, levies and taxes could be imposed on producers and consumers of single-use plastics and plastic shopping bags. Universities and research institutes are encouraged to conduct researches that will lead to non-plastic packaging options. We call on the manufacturing sector to support such research initiatives.