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Opinions of Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Columnist: Oreyomi, Punchng,com

Environmental hazards of plastics

File: Plastic bottles File: Plastic bottles

The invention of synthetic plastic by Leo Baekeland in 1907 marked the beginning of human dependency on plastic and other synthetic materials.

Its universal acceptability by humans paved the way for the mass production of plastics over the years. In 1950 for example, 1.5 million metric tons of plastics were produced worldwide.

This figure rose astronomically to 288 million and 335 million metric tons in 2012 and 2016 respectively.

It is estimated that more than 650 million metric tons of plastic would be produced globally by 2034.

Properties of plastic which include light weight, strength, reusability, translucency and low cost contribute immensely to its use both for domestic and industrial purposes. Plastic is widely used as food packaging, containers for household products, medical equipment, electrical safety/installation and construction works.

Ironically, the same properties that made plastics the first choice products also make them nonbiodegradable and persistent in the environment. This makes it difficult to manage their waste.

It is an indubitable fact that plastic production is ever-increasing with resultant enormous plastic wastes.

How efficient have these plastic wastes been managed?

Reports revealed that only 9% of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced worldwide between 1950s and 2015 was recycled, 12% was disposed of by incineration while the remaining 79% ended up on the landfill sites and in the marine environment.

This trend has not changed significantly thus far.

In Nigeria and other developing countries of the world for example, these plastic wastes such as empty water sachets, plastic water bottles etc are thrown into the drains/gutters and open spaces.

Plastics have negative impacts on both terrestrial and aquatic environments. For example, plastics in the drains cause blockages and flooding whenever it rains.

The unprecedented flooding of Marina Lagos and other places in the metropolis recently can be attributable to blocked drainage and water channels.

Notwithstanding, the flooding was linked to the ongoing Atlantic City project in Lagos.

Overtly, the bulk of the plastics carelessly dumped or thrown on the ground find their ways into the oceans by winds, rivers and other routes. Other means by which plastics enter the marine environment include tourists who visit beaches for recreation.

As expected, plastics in the marine ecosystems do not remain the same for long.

They break down with time into fragments known as microplastics as a result of their exposure to ultraviolet radiation (photodegradation).

Aquatic wildlife ingest microplastics because they resemble their natural foods facilitating the transfer of microplastics across the food chain.

Plastics also cause entanglement of aquatic wildlife such as sea turtles, sharks and other fish species have been reported to be victims of entanglement in the oceans. Entanglement causes suffocation and death of fish and other aquatic wildlife resulting in poor fish harvesting.

Th impacts of plastic also affect socio-economic life of the people. Floating plastic debris obstruct and damage the propellers of ships which requires money to be fixed.

Furthermore, tourists who visit coastal areas for recreational purposes are also affected when the aesthetic values of these tourist centres are destroyed with floating plastics.

This causes social exclusion and poor interpersonal relationship with others and poor revenue generation due to little or no patronage.

Problems posed by the production and disposal of plastic waste are not insurmountable.

Modern definition of waste is “resource in a wrong place”. Be that as it may, plastic waste needs to be turned into wealth.

New plastic management technologies need to be developed. In this regard, kudos must be given to the American Chemistry Council. The Council has set a goal to reuse, recycle and recover 100% of plastic used for packaging by 2040. It is envisaged that no plastic would be going into disposal or landfill sites by 2040.

This is an ambitious and laudable goal that should be emulated by Nigeria in order to eliminate plastic waste in our environment. This will accelerate the drive towards the attainment of circular economy.

A circular economy is a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design (avoidance of waste). This is a departure from the current linear economy which is based on “take, make and dispose of” principle.

Rivers transport large quantity of plastics into the marine environment. Therefore, there should be regular clean up of the rivers.

The Federal Government should enact a stringent law/regulation that will reduce the dependency on the use of plastic products particularly as carrier bags.

The United Kingdom enacted a law in 2010 which drastically reduced the use of carrier bags by 90%.

Nigeria should emulate Kenya which passed the toughest laws in the world regarding the plastic bags by imposing $40,000 fines for selling or using plastic bags in the country.

China, France, Rwanda and Italy have partially banned single-use plastic bags in their respective countries.

More Environmental Health Officers should be employed to monitor the environment and enforce the existing and newly enacted laws/regulations nationwide. The present numerical strength of these officers is grossly inadequate.

One cannot downplay the role of human attitude/ behaviour in regard to environmental sanitation. In view of this, there’s an urgent need for public education and awareness of the citizens for the purpose of changing their attitude and mindset. This is because plastic use and disposal is mainly influenced by human behaviours of which public enlightenment will address.

Finally, the time for humankind to develop and start using biodegradable plastic products is now. Biodegradable plastic products will easily decompose in the environment. Doing this will be a right step in the right direction if we are to prevent catastrophe.

It has been predicted that if the current production level of plastic is sustained, the quantity of microplastics in the marine environment would be more than the fish population by 2050.