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World Environment Day: Solutions to plastic pollution

Since 1973, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has designated June 5 as World Environment Day. The theme

Since 1973, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has designated June 5 as World Environment Day. The theme of this year’s event was ‘Solutions to Plastic Pollution’ and a global campaign movement tagged “#BeatPlasticPollution” aimed at drawing humanity’s attention to the impact of plastic pollution on the environment and the transformative and collaborative actions needed to tackle the crisis.

This year’s event was hosted by Cote D’Ivoire in partnership with the Netherlands. Both countries have demonstrated commitment and leadership to tackle plastic pollution with the host banning the production, sell of plastic bags in 2014 while encouraging re-cyclable use among others, while the latter has spearheaded plastic pollution reduction regulations in the EU.

For over 70 years, due to industrialisation and human development, plastic materials have found a way into every nook and cranny of our planet. Surprisingly, plastics has also been found on the highest (Mt. Everest) peak, on land and the deepest point (Mariana Trench) in the sea highlighting the momentous scale of the problem confronting the environment. According to UNEP, plastic account for more than 85 per cent of marine litter and waste posing an increasing threat to aquatic life.

On land, plastic wastes had clogged dumpsites, canals, waterways, rivers and streams emptying an inundated tons of plastic into the oceans daily.  According to UNEP, “by 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the seas” unless a globally coordinated approach and sustainable actions were put in place to halt the trend.

Heart-warmingly, a pathway to starting negotiations on a global scale to tackle plastic pollution was signed by the environment ministers of the 175 UN member states (including Nigeria) during the UNEA 5.2 (United Nations Environmental Assembly) meeting held in March, 2022 in Nairobi, Kenya. This was a significant milestone towards charting a legally binding agreement by 2024 to curb plastic pollution.

Even so, benefits of plastic could be found in medicine, agriculture, transportation, aviation and other human endeavours, the worrying aspect was humanity’s seeming addiction to single-use and disposable plastics which are increasingly causing incalculable harm to the environment. Plastic don’t bio-degrade instead they breakdown overtime into small chunks, micro and nano-plastics thereby posing risks to species on land and in the sea. These microplastics sometimes end up being mistaken as food by marine creatures such as whales, sea turtles and birds.

Similarly, discarded plastic waste increasingly entangle marine species posing risks to their continued survival thereby altering the source of protein for over a billion people across the globe. The ocean produces more than 50 per cent of Earth’s oxygen and is the largest sequester of greenhouse gases. Without the oceans natural ability to absorb trapped heat in the atmosphere, climate change impact may have worsened.

The four (i.e., mangroves, salted marshes, coral reefs and seagrass) ocean-linked coastline “carbon sink” ecosystems are increasingly being threatened by the sheer volume of plastic waste transported from inland to their surroundings thereby degrading their natural ability to function as carbon sequester.

A global shift to circular economies will create a more sustainable management of single-use plastics and other forms of plastic pollution.

Although plastic recycling is still far below expectation even in more advanced economies such as the US (with recycle rate of 9%), some countries (e.g., Rwanda, Kenya, and South Korea) have tighter control and regulations relating to plastic waste management.

According to UNEP, the global rate of plastic recycle is only 10 per cent which is grossly low. Massive scale up of re-cycling infrastructure and consumer led departure from single-use plastics will decelerate plastic pollution while providing an estimated 700,000 additional jobs especially in the global south nations.

The UNEP/Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s partnership created a platform for private and public sectors to pursue plastics circular economies with over 500 signatories to the agreement including governments, financial institutions and plastic producers to recycle and reuse plastics. According to Greenpeace, 99 per cent of the plastic produced are sourced from fossil fuels.

Climate change and the environment are inseparably linked as reduction in demand for plastics translates to decline in fossil fuels which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and is good for the environment.

Several African countries had enacted laws prohibiting single-use, disposable and non-biodegradable plastics. Of the 54 states in Africa, 34 had passed laws banning plastics while 16 have totally banned plastic bags. Leading the pack were Rwanda and Kenya with former being the first African nation in 2019 to issue a complete ban on all single-use plastics. On the global scene, South Korea has 68 per cent waste recycling rate and the government introduced plans to “reduce plastic waste by 20 per cent by 2025” according to the Financial Times newspaper.

Nigeria is ranked 9th in global pollution with just over 12 per cent recycling infrastructure and about 2.5 million tons of plastic waste generated annually most of which found their way into dumpsites, canals, rivers and ultimately into the ocean. Single-use plastics constitute a substantial portion of plastic waste in Nigeria.

However, plastic waste recycling start-ups such as RecyclePoints in Lagos and Halba Plastic (daily processing capacity to three tons) in Kano are creating job opportunities, translating waste to wealth and curbing plastic pollution.

Creating consumer awareness on single-use plastics and incentivise plastic producers to recycle substantial percentage of the products they produce could spur the desired impact at reducing these wastes.

Nigeria’s waste management value-chain requires an overhaul and the necessary impetus and infrastructure at community, local, state and federal levels to better manage the plastic and other waste crisis. Hopefully, the recently promulgated national policies on plastic and solid waste management may inject fresh ideas and new approaches to tackle plastic pollution wreaking havoc to the environment.

 

Isa can be reached via [email protected]

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