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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Plastics, plastics, everywhere

By Adetokunbo Abiola

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The rain falls along Oba Adesida Road, coming down in heavy showers, accompanied by the sound of thunder. In the nearby gutter, the flood sweeps plastic from downtown, filling Mama Adegun’s restaurant with an unbearable stench. One of the customers places down his spoon on the plate, spitting to the side of the dim-lit room. After the rain abates, he stands up, beats dust from his clothes, leaves. Mama Adegun stares at the plastic floating in the flood outside, gives a sigh.

Soon after, the rain begins again, after some customers enter the restaurant. The flood comes with more plastic materials – bottles, wrappings, bowls, plates, and other debris. The sounds of more thunder fill the air, and with it, the stench from the plastic and other debris rises into the restaurant, causing the customers to place their forks and spoons on their plates, biting their lips. As soon as the rain abates, they edge out of the place. They run anytime rain falls, especially when they perceive the odor from the loads of plastic and other debris, Mama Adegun tells this reporter.

In some parts of Akure, especially during the rainy season, the sight of loads of plastic rubbish nauseates, affecting restaurants and bars, because those coming to eat or drink would always complain about the smell and find alternatives. Akure produces lots of municipal solid waste (MSW), comprising of plastics and organic wastes. The MSW generated in Akure,  based on 0.32kg/cap/day in 2005, reaches  about 180,000 metric tons/year, said  A. J. Oloruntade, who teaches at the Rufus Giwa Polytechnic, Owo, in a 2013 research paper.

The lack of general knowledge about the environmental impact of plastic waste contributes to the problem, according to Gbenga Adekunle, one of the customers at Mama Adegun’s restaurant. The problem also affects Lagos, Nigeria’s megacity of more than 20 million people,  which produces between 13,000 and 15,000 tonnes of waste per day, including 2,250 tonnes of plastic, according to a recent report. People who visit beaches, riverbanks, parks and waterfalls frequently dump their plastic materials carelessly, despite the dangers that such plastics pose to the environment.

The presence of plastics persists  because, not unlike Europe and the West, it accounts for 40% in the packaging of products, meaning great demand attends to it. The amount of plastic produced in the world have risen  through the years, from 2 million tons in 1950 to 368 million tons in 2019.  The world produces twice as much plastic waste as it did two decades ago, with the bulk of it ending up in landfills, incinerated or leaking into the environment, and only 9% successfully recycled, according to a new OECD report.

The rising population of Akure also drives a relentless increase in the amount of plastic used and thrown away, with policies to curb its leakage into the environment rendered ineffectual. The current metro area population of Akure hits 717,000 in 2022, a 3.76% rise from 2021, according to estimates from Macrotrends. This means plastic polymers such as polyester, polypropylene, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, styrene-ethylene butylene styrene, and chlorinated polyethylene abound.

The plastic releases substances into the air that affect the nose, said Mama Adegun. Lots of times, her nose runs, leading to headache and catarrh, making her to scratch her face.  The amount spent on tablets cuts into her profit margin, and it makes her curse the rainy season, because she knows it will bring about the cursed plastics into the gutter beside her restaurant.

Plastics lead to cancer, asthma, heart diseases, skin and eye diseases, causing damages to nervous and reproductive systems, although it is difficult to determine the true level of impact of open burning of waste on public health, because not much data is available in Africa, said Gboyega Olorunfemi, Principal Consultant, EnviromaxGlobal Resources Limited, Ibadan. Plastics contribute to climate change by warming the earth through the incineration  of wastes and their subsequent direct and indirect interactions with clouds and rainfall patterns, he added.

If for example the United States wants to limit the warming of the earth to one and a half degrees by 2050, it should not emit more than 570 billion tons of CO2. Sadly, 10% to 13% of this will be emitted by the production of plastic and the incineration of plastic waste, making the drinking of microplastics via bottled water inevitable. A World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2018 exposed the presence of microplastics in 90% of bottled water, with only 17 free of the product out of 259.

Fragments of polymers such as polystyrene, polypropylene, and polyethylene showed up in the soil  of four Lagos beaches, according to a study.  In another study carried out in Ox-Bow lake in Yenagoa, Bayelsa, Nigeria, microplastics in the range of 310 to 2319 particles/kg showed up, according to researchers.

Even in studies carried out in the Osun River, researchers spotted microplastics- shaped fibre in their samples. So while Mama Adegun bemoans the presence of plastics near her restaurant, the problem proves more complex, since the product also acts as an instigator of climate change, which brings the flood pounding outside the gutter beside her restaurant.

All agencies saddled with the responsibilities of MSW should be strengthened with enabling law, adequate budgetary allocation and staffing to ensure that they operate at full capacity, said  Oloruntade, while proferring solutions to the issue of plastics as related to Akure and its surroundings. Citizens should be educated on the colour codes for the waste collection bins and the expected waste category to be dumped inside each of them, he said.

Whether this will solve the challenge of plastic pollution remains to be seen in the wider context of the issue. As for Mama Adegun, she wants the problem solved, so people won’t troop out of her restaurant when the rain falls.

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