Aquatic wildlife, environment in danger from plastic waste

Professionals call for research and development on biodegradables
Aquatic, environmental professionals and scientists have raised the alarm over the menace of plastic waste and dangers it poses to the aquatic wildlife, the environment, sustainable food production systems and ultimately, the human life.

They called for exploring available science and technologies, more research and development efforts on not only recycling but also the development of more environment-friendly biodegradable alternatives to plastic bottles.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles and other plastic materials are not biodegradable. They remain un-degraded for over 200 years, thereby constituting a threat to soil fertility, environmental purity. They contaminate water bodies and escalate extinction of aquatic biodiversity.

Lagos State, described as the smallest in land mass but arguably the largest in population, is said to generate at least 13 million metric tonnes of waste daily, and over 60 per cent of the waste is plastic, as disclosed by the Lagos State government agencies.

Professor Emmanuel Ajani, Dean of the Faculty of Renewable Natural Resources, University of Ibadan (UI), explained while speaking with The Guardian that micro plastic materials such as lipsticks, paints and other petrochemical-based materials are flushed to the water bodies regularly. Also, macro plastics, such as bottles and nylons, because of high rate of consumption in Nigeria, find their way to the aquatic and farmland, posing dangers to aquatic animals and food production.

A big hammer-head shark washed ashore in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos State, recently.

Whales, other species of fish, aquatic plants and other organisms are increasingly becoming endangered and the situation is aggravated by the climate change.

Similarly, Mr Demola Emmanuel, General Manager, Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA), said the waterways in the state are loaded with undesirable materials that threaten the aquatic wildlife. The population and the metro lifestyles that encourage consumption of bottled water, soft drinks and other plastic packaging materials have increased the volume of plastic waste deposited in the waterways, he explained.

As a way forward, he suggested state and federal inter-agency collaboration to clean the waterways and preserve the aquatic environment and wildlife. The collaboration with recyclers, producers of plastic materials and other government agencies, he argued, would make the state and Nigeria as a whole clean of plastic deposits in the waterways.

Out-going General Manager of the Lagos State Parks and Gardens (LASPARK), Mrs Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, also admitted that apart from effects on the aquatic wildlife, the environment is deprived of necessary vegetation as the plastic materials on land retard proper vegetation. This, in turn, would affect farming, resilience building against climate change, and the need to beautify the environment for ecotourism.

Various dumpsites in the metropolis that are littered with plastic materials have been cut off from resources meant for greenery, neighbourhood and backyard farming, and thus poses danger to sustainable food production.

Turning the menace to opportunities
It has been pointed out, however, that there are economic opportunities in the challenge of plastic waste. The recycling stakeholders have argued that individual consumers could be incentivised to dispose plastic waste properly. Incentives could serve as a behaviour modification strategy, saying users could be financially rewarded per bottled returned to the manufacturer of the content for onward delivery to recycling facilities.

It is also argued that the same routes that the products were distributed could be used to collect the plastic materials with some incentives.

A recycler, Mr Olawale Adebiyi, while describing how to The Guardian, said attaching a price value to recyclable plastics would encourage individuals, households and groups to keep their plastic waste properly, sell such to recycling companies and the aquatic as well as farmland would get freed from plastic deposits to a very large extent.

Women and itinerant plastic waste collectors disclosed to The Guardian that they do sell a kilogramme of the plastic waste at N15. A metric tonne of the plastic would fetch them N15,000. Considering that Lagos generates 13 million tonnes of waste, and over 50 per cent is plastic, it represents a huge rewarding exercise to dispose plastic materials commercially.

The value of Lagos State plastic waste daily, by implication, is around N97.5 billion, apart from the waste flushed into the waterways and the oceans.

Apart from recycling for bottle production, other products, as explained by BASF West Africa’s Dr Akintayo Adisa, is oil extract. He explained to The Guardian that because PET bottles are made from petroleum products, they could be recycled into oil that could serve various industry purposes using applied chemistry principles.

Dr Adisa disclosed that his organisition was moving to encourage individuals, households and groups to see plastic as a danger to the water body and earth surface, and hence should take advantage of getting empowered by disposing plastic waste responsibly.

Ironically turning the situation to economic opportunities, thousands of women, men and entrepreneurs could play active roles revolving around recycling while the environment, aquatic wildlife and farming space is protected.

Critics, however, have advocated regulation of the plastic production and consumption. The extreme advocate a ban on the use of plastic for drinks, water and food. Whereas, some advocate a regulation that would compel business entities that use plastic bottles and packaging materials to do so responsibly by incentivising people to return such for recycling.

A director at the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NASREA), Mrs Miranda Amachree, said though Lagos, its agencies, NESREA and other government agencies had been leading efforts to control the menace, regulatory emphasis is shifting to making user companies to act responsibly.

“We work with the sector operators to develop regulations to manage the challenge. The drive is to take off the responsibility from the government to the manufacturers responsible for the production and use of the plastic bottles and others,” she said.

However, she admitted that though efforts of NASREA started about 10 years ago, it had taken “baby steps” in that direction.

She disclosed that the Producers Responsibility Organisations had been formed to ensure responsibility, accountability and shared purpose of managing the plastic waste to avert aquatic, environmental and food production disasters.

Similarly, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) said it had developed a regulatory framework in conjunction with relevant stakeholders for inclusiveness.

Speaking with The Guardian, a Deputy Director at SON, Mr Agboola Afolayan, said the draft of the policy is ‘ready for review by stakeholders, and after the review, the public would be sensitised on ways to handle plastic waste.

Biodegradable alternatives
In the face of the challenge and threats it poses, developing biodegradable bottles and packaging materials appears a sustainable, environment-friendly and opportunistic idea. Developed economies have come up with biodegradables used for water, drinks and other food items.

Professor Ajani, the UI academic, pitched his tent with the idea of embracing biodegradable materials for drink and food packaging, saying increasing cases of cancer could not be divorced from their use.

Product developers, scientists and various government agencies could work together, develop more human and environment-friendly biodegradables that could save the country.

An American firm was reported to have made biopolymer-based water bottles in California, and the “bottles are made from polyhydroxyalkanoate or PHA, an FDA-approved biopolymer that is 100-per cent compostable and breaks down into CO2, water and organic waste when tossed in the garden compost bin to be sent to municipal landfill. The company says that it will even safely break down in soil, fresh water, and the ocean,” according to New Atlas.

Nigerian scientists are, therefore, challenged to think out of the box, explore the incredible and bail Nigeria and the rest of the world out of the mess of plastic waste by researching into abundant natural and biodegradable resources as a viable and sustainable alternative.


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