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Plastic waste problem is a source of income for many, but health risks are often neglected, writes Justice Nwafor.
During a typical morning, 39-year-old Abubakar Sani stands holding a sack loaded with used polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and containers at the HISL Recyclers in Lagos, Nigeria, waiting to place it on a weighing scale.
HISL Recyclers specialises in the collection and recycling of polyethylene terephthalate waste, the lightweight plastic containers widely used for soft drinks and water bottles.
“We do not get enough so we have set up a structure that pays not just the scavengers but anyone who brings [some] to us.”
Bode Seun, HISL, Nigeria
Nigeria generates some 32 million tonnes of waste per year, of which 2.5 million tonnes is plastic. The country’s disposal, recycling and waste management system is very inefficient, with 70 per cent of plastic and non-plastic waste ending up in landfills, sewers, beaches and water bodies.
In an effort to improve plastic waste recycling, Nigeria’s Minister for Environment, Muhammad Mahmood, said last year (October 22) that the government had built about 26 plastic recycling plants throughout the country to serve as a pilot project after new regulations come into force.
Eight years ago, Abubakar left his wife and two-year-old son behind in Katsina state, northwest Nigeria, in search of a better paid job in the commercial city of Lagos. Jobs were scarce and, having had no formal education, he settled in with other labourers in one of the numerous landfills and dumpsites scattered across the city.
He started as a PET bottles picker and within a few years became an employer of pickers. His small team of eight receive stipends in return for gathering plastic bottles from the streets, gutters and landfills.
“Most of the time the plastic bottles we don’t pick end up in the gutters. And when it rains, the gutters get blocked, then people would start complaining of roads being flooded,” Abubakar says.
Africa’s plastic waste problem, despite its environmental health hazards, has become a source of income for people such as Abubakar, but little has been done to address the public health risks.
HISL Recyclers collects items such as PET bottles, cartons, nylon and soft drink cans from people like Abubakar and residents of Ajah, a suburb of Lagos where it operates from. The value of each waste item and identity of the supplier is recorded daily and the supplier is paid accordingly at the end of each month.
“We do not get enough so we have set up a structure that pays not just the scavengers but anyone who brings [waste] to us,” says Bode Seun, director of operations at HISL Recyclers. “Each kilogram of PET is valued at 20 Naira (five US cents).”
There has been progress, but more work is needed to get people to adopt the culture of cash-for-waste, says Seun.
His company is not alone in this. Less than eight kilometres from its centre in Ajah, east of the city, is Eco Viridis, a similar plastic waste collection system which recycles waste of any kind. However, the venture has not yet earned widespread acceptance. Residents more commonly strew waste into street corners, gutters, roadsides, rivers and canals.
So far, start-ups such as HISL Recyclers and Eco Viridis recycle on average between eight and 20 tonnes of plastic waste a month. They recognise that more must be done to scale up, given that Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is the seventh highest generator of plastic waste in the world with almost six million tonnes. And Lagos is at the heart of this crisis.
Lagos alone generates between 10,000 and 13,000 tonnes of waste daily, of which about 50 per cent are recyclables, says Ayobami Akinbulo, recycling manager at the recycling unit of Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA). But most of the recyclables end up in landfill sites.
Local authorities want things to change. A public-private initiative known as Blue Box aims to capture about 50 per cent of recyclables by mid-2021, and provides residents with coded bags and containers to sort plastic and non-plastic waste.
The result has been slow but consistent. In one part of the city, only 835 kg (less than one tonne) of PET was recovered in October 2019, but the figures increased to about 36 tonnes in July 2020, according to Akinbulo.
This progress is largely due to the burgeoning engagement of private recyclers such as Eco Viridis and HISL by the Lagos local government, adds Ibrahim Odumboni, managing director of LAWMA.
Population growth partly accounts for the dramatic increase in waste in Nigeria. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country with over 200 million people, a figure expected to double by 2050. But the structure for municipal waste management across its growing cities remains weak.
Lagos, with about 20 million inhabitants, is the most densely populated city in Nigeria and Africa as a whole.
“There is a need to design an integrated plastic waste recovery model, and I did design one for Africa.”
University of Zambia
This means the waste crisis may get even worse. The UN warns that in less than 30 years, the number of plastic waste items in oceans globally may outnumber fish.
Lagos is a hotspot because of its vast network of islands, rivers, lagoons, and canals that feed the Atlantic Ocean. In Lagos, water bodies and wetlands cover over 40 per cent of the total area, the most of any Nigerian city.
Beyond the spiking population, Oresanya thinks that changing consumption patterns have also contributed to the increase in plastic waste generation. Scientists say that over 60 million plastic water sachets are consumed and disposed of daily in Nigeria.
Why interest in PET
One less known factor is the bias of recyclers who prioritise PET recyclables at the expense of other plastic types. For instance, HISL and others usually pay 20 Naira (about five US cents) for a kilogramme of PET-made waste materials but would pay about four US cents for plastics such as garbage bags and irrigation tubing made from low-density polyethylene.
This bias encourages people like Abubakar and his workers to concentrate more on PET plastics which would fetch them more money. These plastics have several toxic chemicals such as Bisphenol A, Phenol and Phthalates that could adversely harm the environment and put public health at risk.
Emmanuel Ofoezie, a professor of environmental management and environmental health and director of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Studies at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, says that solid waste that includes plastics could breed disease-transmitting agents such as Aedes mosquitoes and cause urban zoonosis, especially rodent and canine disease reservoirs.
Health issues such as impairment of the nervous system, leukaemia, skin diseases, cancer, eye irritation, vision failure, and developmental and reproductive diseases have been linked to some toxic chemical additives such as persistent organic pollutants found in some plastics. This could put the health of people in danger if they do not wear protective clothing as they collect the waste. According to the Center for International Environmental Law report.
Same problem across Africa
The plastic waste problem is common in Africa. In Zambia for example, the country’s Environmental Management Agency has reinforced the extended producer responsibility law, which banned the manufacturing of plastics bags of less than 30 microns in thickness.
But implementation has left much to be desired, says Bupe Getrude Mwanza, a senior lecturer at the University of Zambia and visiting senior research associate at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, whose doctoral research focused on solid plastic wastes in Africa.
“What is prevailing at the moment is not enough to minimise plastic pollution,” she says. “The manner in which the extended producer responsibility is being implemented has left room for more improvement.”To mitigate the plastic problem, African leaders must look again at the legal frameworks in their countries and introduce laws on mandatory plastic waste recycling to support the enforcement of extended producer responsibility, according to Mwanza.
“There is a need to design an integrated plastic waste recovery model, and I did design one for Africa; standardise the pricing systems within the supply chains of plastic solid waste, and train the informal waste sector on waste sorting,” Mwanza explains.
The integration of all relevant institutions in waste recovery and management is equally important, she adds, because in developing economies, the biggest actor is the informal waste sector and it must be integrated into formal or supported systems.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.
- Plastic wastes: environmental hazard and instrument for wealth creation in Nigeria (National Center for Biotechnology Information, October 2020)
- Let’s walk plastic ban talk (Zambia Daily Mail, December 7, 2018)