World Environment Day: How Plastics, Diapers And Deforestation Degrade The Environment



With the theme, “Seven Billion Dreams, One Planet, Consume With Care, this year’s World Environment Day marked comes with a caution to the people of the world to consume with care. In this report, Abiose Adelaja Adams looks at a variety of consumption patterns in Nigeria that leaves huge ecological footprints.

Aliyu Ibrahim, a refuse scavenger at the Olusosun landfill site, Ojota, Lagos, stretched his neck, when a truck passed by, overlooking the giant mounds of refuse around him. He was met sorting wastes with his bare hands. He told this reporter that he sells a dozen of 50cl plastic bottles (such as Coke, Pepsi, Viju mlk, Lacasera) for about N200. Right beside him was a giant sack filled with plastic bottles, he had earlier. He thought the truck that passed was that of his buyers who would re-sell to recycling companies. He said that was the chain of recycling at the site.

If not recycled, it takes an average of seven hundred years for a single plastic bottle to decompose, according to the most recent report of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The Lagos Waste Management Agency, LAWMA, reported that Lagosians generate 9,000 tonnes of waste daily and recycling is one of the best ways of managing waste, as it does less harm to the environment.

However, UNEP’s concern is that the high demand for plastic bottles is not commensurate with the effort put into recycling and most clog water ways, gutters and eventually transported into seas and oceans, where they can become hazardous to marine life and humans who feed on sea fish.

The managing director of LAWMA, Ola Oresanya, said Lagosians, especially those living in low income areas have poor waste management habits.

According to him, waste is supposed to be sorted from the home. “Sorting of waste is the key to the reuse, recycle and reduce campaign. That is why we have introduced a LAWMA Recycling Bank, which shall be situated in every estate within the metropolis, to serve as a storehouse for recyclable materials such as cans, glass, plastics and paper.” He however is not too impressed at the culture of Nigerians towards wastes sorting.

Most of them still use wastes to reclaim lands,” he said.

Mike Simire, a member of Member of Nigeria Network of Climate Communicators as well as publisher of online newspaper on environment, EnvironNews, said: “A lot of people co-mingle their waste at the point of waste collection. The sorting is supposed to be done at home, so it makes it easier, then every waste will go through the right channel and recycling will be easier.

A LAWMA official, who spoke to off-the-record at Olusosun, said the bottles brought to the site are recycled, but he cannot vouch for LAWMA’s ability to reach everywhere in Lagos due to the huge population. That means in the areas which cannot be reached, these bottles can either clog waterways, gutters, sit on landfill sites, or end up in rivers and oceans posing dangers to fish and other marine life, which often mistake it for food as UNEP had reported.

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Tree Falling

In another visit to Okobaba Sawmill, Ebute Metta, Lagos, which is said to be the biggest sawmill in West Africa, elegant trees, once were the glory of the forest canopy, lay as dead logs on the floor of the mill.
Mr. O. Adebiyi, an exco member of the Sawmillers Association, said: “Everyday we bring in logs of wood from Ogun, and Ondo states. Wood is hot cake here and a plank of wood at the mill sells for N700 and there is a high demand for wood.”

Wood is often used for almost everything: furniture, building, energy, cooking fuel. When trees are felled, they are transported through the river to Okobaba for milling. Ironically, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change campaign for over a decade now frowns at deforestation of this kind. Tree felling speeds up the process of deforestation, which in turn increases global warming. Since trees take away carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cutting down trees means this gas, (which is the chief cause of global warming) remains there, and the process of burning during cooking stockpiles more carbon in the atmosphere.

“What these sawmillers do, is an offence punishable by planting 10 trees for every tree cut,” said Shabi Adebola, General Manager of the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA). “But these trees are not cut in Lagos, they are brought into Lagos,” he argued.

Notably, the Food and Agriculture Organization, (FAO) reports that every year, about three to six billion trees are felled worldwide. This demand for wood as fuel is reported to have led to an alarming rate of deforestation as the FAO estimates the net annual forest loss to be about 4 million hectares for the period 2000–2005. The FAO report shows that trees are felled for the chief purpose of wood fuel. A similar report, ‘State of the World’s Forests’, shows that almost 90 percent of the wood removals in Africa are used for fuel, compared with less than 40 percent in the world at large.

Salisu Dahiru, coordinator of National REDD+ Programme, (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), said there is an alternative for the demand for wood, which is by planting bamboo tree.

“Bamboo can be grown, harvested and processed to serve the same purpose. It also takes three years to grow a bamboo tree, but it can take up to 100 years to grow a tall and mature timber tree. But in Nigeria, bamboo is growing in the wild and people just clear it away when they want to use the land, not knowing that it is a good alternative,” he explained On the international scale, the Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR), an intergovernmental group based in Beijing, China, have also found bamboo and rattan to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, since bamboo grows quickly and also absorbs carbon quickly. Governments are urged to see it as a strategic forest resource in the battle against climate change.

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A garbage heap

Diapers And Sanitary Towels

Another consumer product leaving huge ecological footprint are diapers and sanitary towels. Just like plastic, experts have said that it takes 700 years for sanitary towels and 250-500 years for diapers to decompose, if they ever do. The high demand for these products makes it of serious environmental concern.

Diapers are considerably more convenient than cloth nappies. Mothers say it is affordable, handy, easy to use, keeps baby buttocks dry thus preventing rashes, unlike the traditional cloth nappies which, although more environment- friendly, are launder-intensive and not so convinient especially when wet. Oresanya, could not categorically tell the scale of diaper waste generated, but the largest manufacturer of diapers, Procter and Gamble, is reported to make an annual sale of USD8 billion worldwide. Studies have also shown that an average child will use between 5000-7000 diapers before becoming potty-trained at age two.

A diaper is made of an outer waterproof layer, polypropylene and an inner layer made of wood pulp, while the fluff decomposes easily, the outer takes between 250-500 years to degrade.

Oresanya said LAWMA is a major collector of waste for Procter and Gamble and is working on disinfecting their waste and recycling the fibre content. “We have a problem in this country and that is lack of waste sorting. All the waste is co-mingled.”

An environmentalist and director for the Basel Convention Regional Coordinating Center for Africa, Oladele Osinbajo, said: “We don’t manage waste in this country. We just dump waste. There is a difference between the two.”

He added that if not disinfected before dumping, the excreta on the pampers can form a leachate that can pollute ground surface water, thus leading to disease outbreak such as chiolera, dysentery and typhoid.
Sanitary towels

Also called pads, they are made of super absorbent polymer and plastic that makes it hard to decompose. Similarly the cotton wool in the towel is bleached with chlorine, which releases toxic by-products, dioxin and furans, which are known to cause cancer in humans.

Worldwide, women of child bearing age are higher in population than menopausal women. For instance an average woman starts her menstrual period between ages 11-13 years and stops around 48-52. Furthermore, data from the United Nations Aids for International Development (UNAIDS), show that Nigeria has more younger people than older people.

An average woman menstruates for about 3-5 days and uses an average of 2-3 sanitary towels a day. In a year, therefore, she uses around 180 pads. In her fertile lifetime, which could be approximately 27 years, she uses a total of 6,500-7,000 pads. This figure tallies with a study conducted in India, where it has be shown that an average woman consumes 10,000 to 15,000 sanitary towles in her life time. As with other wastes earlier identified, majority of these wastes are not sorted. Some clog waterways, block toilets, while several are sent to landfills, sewage treatment plants or end up in rivers or ocean killing fish and other marine life.

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A United States Center for Marine Conservation Research says over 170,000 tampoon applicators were collected along US Coastal areas between 1998-1999.Similarly in Canada, over 12 billion sanitary pads and tampoons are disposed of each year. In Australia and New Zealand, the figure is well over 700 million tampoons and one billion pads. Daily in the UK, approximately 25 million tampoons, 1.4 million pads, 0.7 million panty liners are dumped in toilets


Teni Majekodunmi, an environmental lawyer and activist, believes there are no alternatives to sanitary towels.

“What we can do is to arrange proper disposable channels so they don’t clog water ways and to employ a sanitary disposal system. Another thing that can be done is to make the sanitary pads smaller in size so we use less energy and also to get a machine that can shred it to pieces, leaving them as sanitary as possible,” she reasoned.

According to her, the government should make a law that allows the sanitary disposal of pads, diapers, etc from hotels, hospital and other public places such that it leaves no mark at all.

But the director of Transformation Centre (an NGO), Olutosin Oladosu- Adebowale, is providing alternatives to women through the rewashable sanitary towels, which she handmakes.

“We use loads of pads and we don’t dispose them well. But this one is rewashable, just add a little salt and dry and keep till next month.and they are environmentally friendlier.

Government Policies

Oresanya concluded that public awareness and government policies will go along way in helping Nigerians embrace a healthy attitude to disposing their waste. “We are doing a lot, but there is still so much to be done,” he said.

On the other hand, Doyin Odubanjo, a public health practitioner and secretary of the Nigeria Academy of Science, said environmental sustainability is not an option. “Nigerians as well as the government should take climate change and environmental issues seriously,” he advised.

He remarked that the awareness is currently low. “It is because the government has not yet seen the importance. If the government continues to ignore these things, it is not that new diseases will emerge, but it will worsen the current diseases we are dealing with. For example, malaria will worsen, cholera outbreak will worsen, cancers and respiratory diseases will be on the rise and all these will put pressure on the already existing weak health systems,” Odubanjo warned.