Iya Segun etches her living selling scraps of containers, mostly plastics, in the ever-bubbling Agege railway market. For her, business is good making about $4 a day to cater for her four kids. Across Lagos, in Ojota Valley market, Adeniji under bridge, to Panteka in Kaduna, Sabongeri in Kano and other markets across the country, thousands like her are living off wares of sorted plastic wastes. They are third in the chain of waste industry that starts at refuse collections from streets and houses, turning out millions of tons of wastes, more than 50% plastics. Refuse management by authorities here in Nigeria stops at the dump sites where lots of poor masses scavenge on these huge dumps for a living. Other dump sites are in waters and seas from where plastics continue their deadly journeys. The scraps picked by these scavengers end up as wares for Iya Segun and thousands like her. From their makeshift warehouses, the plastic wastes find two paths; approximately half go back to homes and the other half to recycling plants. Either of these paths leads to deadly consequences.
Plastics are everywhere, from our wears- shoes, bags, headgears and even women hairs attachments; our automobiles; office and household electronics/computers; storage facilities/containers and sachets/wraps of various products and foods. Let us put them in two broad classes. The ones originally produced for food packaging and storage, which are safe health-wise; and the other class unsafe for our health, originally produced to carry non-consumables and hazardous substances. So plastics are not only priority pollutants, they are threats to our health and ecology because of the ingredients chemical used in producing them or chemicals they absorb from environment of their chemical contents. It is hard to separate the two broad classes because of how they end up after reuse and recycling. If a plastic container of harmful chemical ends up being reused by an uninformed person to contain food you can guess the risk. The safe ones originally meant for consumable may later be used to carry harmful product and come back to being used for food again. Beyond this health risks plastics constitute a lot more environmental hazards.
A few times I have entered Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, through the busy Guanabara Bay. This Port approach boasts of the panoramic view of the famous Statue of Christ the Redeemer situated on the 2,340ft Mount Corcovado in Rio and the exotic shoreline resorts/beaches but alas! The Guanabara Bay is a dish-pot of all kinds of rubbish, mostly plastics pouring into the western Atlantic. The sight takes all the excitement from any tourist hoping to have a great time in Rio. The Coast line of Nigeria is not much better. Imagine a tourist checking out the much hyped elitist Lagos Atlantic City, a sprawling ambitious city development project on recovered strip of land along the coast. He checks into a resort in the new city and decides on a yacht sail off the jetty of the expensive yacht club but, all that greeted him are stinking wastes, full of plastic dumped off the coast by the many water-side slums of Lagos that are even greater eye-sours.
But plastics go beyond this in constituting physical hazards. A few years ago, I was in the famous city of Kano. Like most bustling cities in Nigeria, there are plastics littered everywhere in all forms- bags, food/water sachets and bottles. If this was a bad scene, the real hazard didn’t hit me till an experience I had one evening that week. After being guest to a relative, I was anxious to return to my lodge before the building rain cloud bursts. I was advised to wait out the expected rain but I didn’t get what they meant. For me, I would be okay if I get a taxi before the rain. I was not familiar with the far North of Nigeria and their erratic weather elements. While waiting on the street side for taxi, a big storm preceding the rain started. In matter of seconds I could not see ten feet ahead of me as the huge dusts swells around. Before I could scamper for safety I had big plastic cellophane blown across my face, totally blindfolding me. Since then, the sight of plastic litters annoys me. Yet this is just a tip of the physical hazards associated with plastics wastes.
At the peak of the rainy season last year, floods sacked many cities and communities across the country. Many have blamed the failure of infrastructure, amongst other things as the main cause of the floods. Some even dubbed it a natural disaster. I don’t know how many see plastic wastes as the number one culprit. Nothing renders drainage infrastructure useless as fast as plastics. Plastic as non biodegradables meant they don’t decay. In rain runoffs, they are washed down to build up in drainages reducing their carrying capacities, if not totally blocking them. The multiple effects of this can be monumental.
It has been established that 78% of hazardous wastes are plastics and as pointed out earlier, many of the harmful chemicals associated with plastics pose serious health risks to man and other living things. The plastic wares of Iya Segun mentioned above, wherever they end up, either in our homes or recycling plants come at a grave risk to our health. Imagine such plastic, externally washed anew, ends in our home as water/food containers. For many years, this container slowly, invisibly, ooze into your water harmful substances that were its ingredient raw materials or absorbed from whatever is earlier contained in it. The result is worse if you heat your food/water in this plastic when the harmful substances get quickly squeezed out. Many of these substances are carcinogenic, that is they have the potential to cause cancers. Others are estrogenic, meaning they negatively affect our reproductive systems. Some causes instant poisoning.
Apart from direct impacts on our lives, hazardous plastic wastes pose far-reaching ecological danger on both land and marine environments. The marine world is a complex ecosystem. As on land, marine animals feed on themselves and other smaller faunas and floras. These lower lives, the preys and the predators all face the dangers from plastics. The harmful chemicals slowly seeping into waters affects their health and puts them at risk of extinction thereby creating ecological imbalance. Some fishes swallow whole plastics mistaking them for food. I’m not claiming fishes are so dumb as not to recognize their foods. As a mariner, after unsuccessfully trying to bait a fish with the wrong food I know you must be adept in fish eating habits before you can fish. This story may explain what I mean: Not far ago my wife visited Vienna, Austria during the winter. Before flying back she went shopping for chocolates and bought these beautifully wrapped chocolates. We had a taste of these chocolates ourselves and soon started feeling tipsy. They were simply alcoholic candies coated with chocolates! We were quite naïve, the sharp taste didn’t warn us. Lots have even been given out to visitors and friends. Many marine mammals feed on zooplanktons. Plastic floating in waters for a long period can have thick deposits of these zooplanktons and fishes can easily be fooled swallowing this zooplanktons encrusted plastics like my wife’s chocolate-coated alcohol. To think that some of these fishes end on our table as food makes the situation grave. I have seen pictures of endangered sea animals like whales and dauphins entangled in discarded fishing nets.
On land, the tale is not better. If the unsightly litters of plastics on streets don’t bother you, the effects on soil fertility and ultimately food supply should. As in marine environment, harmful substances from plastics tilt the ecological balance dangerously. The crops in our orchards draw from these dangerous nutrients and transfer them to us. The all important fauna like an earthworm struggles against plastics. Earthworms bore around the upper layer of the soil, leaving pores and excrements that provide soil vital aeration and fertility. Imagine if earthworms are wiped out by plastics.
In the movie The Graduate, there is this famous line ‘plastics, young man plastics …..Plastic is the future’. Nobody can discountenance the facts that there is yet great future for plastics. On the flip side, plastics still hold a lot of economic promise. We cannot do away with them but as many environmentalists believe, plastics need a new label. It will take yet some time before evolving technology produce affordable biodegradable plastics but while we are at it, efforts to reduce avoidable use of plastics should be doubled.
Recessive economy meant that foods and consumables are coming packaged in plastic sachets. These sachets are the environment defacing litters all over our streets. I believe plastic sachets can go for foil-coated paper sachets. The many Chinese and Indian run plastic industries in Nigeria cares more for profit than environmental and human health. Their recycling plants produce food packaging containers from whatever plastics that come their way, with little attention to the type of plastic and the chemicals contained in them.
Shops should sell reusable canvas bags rather than plastics. I know that in shipping, efforts in containment and management of plastic wastes is impressive, perhaps because of the many policing organizations and fear of litigation. Careful segregation and incineration, and even treatment of incinerated residues are common practice in maritime. Such efforts should be emulated in our homes and by environmental collection agencies especially in underdeveloped climes like Nigeria. Agencies and NGOs concerned should do more policing even where big money is not involved. And it can all start from individuals and the home. Make the effort to leave your waste, especially plastics at the designated bins instead flinging it out your car. You can help the authority if you segregate plastics from other wastes in your home. A separate bin can help. If you have affordable alternative, why use plastic at all? Mind your health, mind your environment, and mind the plastics!
Abah John Abah, sailor/geologist and public interest commentator on energy and environment resides in Lagos, Nigeria.