Plastic Wastes: The silent killer Nigerians love

Indiscriminate disposal of plastic waste and its unregulated production and use in Nigeria is fueling a crisis in the country. With no policy in place to regulate the use of plastics, Nigerians are daily exposed to threats to life by plastic waste which has been found to contain a chemical substance, dioxin, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) says causes cancer. YEKEEN Akinwale, who was in Kano, Lagos, and Aba, three of Nigeria’s biggest commercial cities, reports how Nigerians live with plastic waste that can send them to an early grave without any caution. Edited by Ajibola AMZAT

AFTER four years of selling plastic gallons and water tanks near the popular Goro pit dumpsite at Ariaria Market, Aba in Abia State, Ibe Blessing has been told to avoid areas where she would come in constant contact with smoke.

Blessing Ibe: She continues to operate her plastic gallons shop near the dumpsite even after medical advice that she should relocate. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

Smoke from the dumpsite, she was told, after a test at a hospital, had caused serious damage to her internal organs. Burning of waste at the dumpsite, mostly plastic, is a daily affair which Blessing and others at the market contend with.

The inability of the Nigerian government to come up with a policy on the management of plastic waste makes dumpsites like Goro pit the final destination of these non-biodegradable products where they are set on fire.

Plastic waste is known to contain carbon and hydrogen.  Scientists say those compounds mix with chloride often found in food waste and when they are set on fire, the mixture releases a gas that is harmful to humans.

If dioxin, one of the released substances, is inhaled, it can instantly cause coughing, shortness of breath, and dizziness—exactly the symptoms Blessing has complained of. Long-term exposure can also cause cancer, The Jakarta Post reports.

She started having a strange feeling in her body in June. “I was feeling sick, dizzy, and having a headache. I knew that I was not well but what was wrong with me was what I didn’t know,” she narrates.

Forty-nine-year-old Blessing went to the hospital for a test where she was asked what sounded like a weird question to her.

“They ask if I smoke cigarette or Indian hemp,” she recalls. “I said no. They asked about the environment where I live and I said there is no smoke there.”

But when she told the medical experts that her shop is located near the Goro pit—where she breathes in smoke everyday—“they said I should try and relocate my shop because the smoke has done something bad in my body.” But she could not recollect exactly what damage has been done to her health or what organ has been affected.

Despite this reality, Blessing continues to operate her stall near the dumpsite inhaling dioxin, a by-product of burnt plastic waste. She and others in the market do not even wear a face mask which costs just N350 per pack of 50 to protect themselves from the substance. This puts their health on the line as WHO has confirmed that dioxins cause cancer.

“Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer,” WHO says in a report titled Dioxins and their effects on human health.

Dying by instalment—what plastic waste does to scavengers

FRANCIS JAMES legs wobble as he drags a sack filled with plastic waste to the sorting portion of Goro pit. James’ present condition reveals that at 56, he is no longer fit for the work that he does —his sight is failing, like his general health condition.

Looking weary in an old t-shirt partially soaked with his sweat, the day was no doubt hectic for him. As he drops the sack in the midst of other plastic-filled sacks, James virtually crawls to the nearby wall—he finds an old, detached car door where he sits.

Francis James: He is suffering from years of unprotected exposure to smoke from burnt plastic and other waste as a scavenger. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

Smoke from the burning of waste at the dumpsite envelopes the whole area. It chokes, as it adds to the environmental pollution – no one cares about the damaging effect of the smoke. Abia state government says it is illegal to burn waste but it occurs daily at the dumpsite because there’s no enforcement.

Life has not been kind to James. Even at his age, he has no wife or children and he scavenges on the landfill sorting out plastic waste to make ends meet.

He and other scavengers supply plastic waste to recyclers, but the business is killing them slowly.

“When plastic waste and food waste are burned, they produce dioxin and furan. These elements, even in small quantities, can cause death,” Emil Budianto, Director of the University of Indonesia’s Environmental Science Department was quoted by The Jakarta Post as saying.

For James, 20 years as a scavenger is already taking tolls on him – he is struggling against losing his sight because of those years of exposure to harmful substances emanating from the burning of plastic and other waste on the dumpsite. In those years, he never used a face mask to protect himself or a hand glove against contacting germs.

He has been diagnosed with a cataract in his left eye, which he was told can only be removed by surgery. He is also suffering from an undisclosed ailment he was recently diagnosed of—his stomach is protruding, legs swollen and skin is pale as a result of it.

Twice this year, James said he had gone to the laboratory for test because he was coughing repeatedly and his left eye was failing.

“They told me that I will need surgery to remove what is in my left eye,” he recalls. But for the infection that currently leads to his bulging stomach and swollen legs, James says he was told that it has to do with his lungs.  He couldn’t remember what name it was called when he was diagnosed.

“This year I went to the lab twice and they gave me drugs for the cough which is N5000 per sachet,” he says. He cannot afford the cost of operating the eye at the moment, and now he is also out of the prescribed drugs.

“When I went to the lab, they gave me some medicine,” he explains. The coughing would stop once he administers the drug, but the ailment has since relapsed and he resorts to self-medication.

“This morning I took another medicine because the one they gave me at the lab has finished and it is expensive,” James said as he solicits help from Abia State government.

He would need a proper diagnosis to ascertain his health status, but two decades of exposure to smoke from the burning of plastic and other waste may have caused serious damage to his system.

What dangers do dioxins pose for Aba residents?

Marketmen and women, including residents of Aba city are at risk of inhaling a dangerous substances from burnt plastic emanating from Goro dumpsite. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

Though Africa is reported to be leading in global war against plastic, Nigeria, the much-touted  Giant of Africa, is lagging behind. Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa are among 34 African countries that are already regulating plastic with bans or taxes. Thirty-one of these are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ghana has created a special recycling fund. The idea was to finance the recycling sector via taxes, specifically an Environmental Excise Tax of 10 percent on plastic waste,’ says recycling advocate Daniel Yaw Mensah Tornyigah. “So far, the fund is thought to contain as much as US$ 163 million.”

Nigeria still struggles with unsightly and unhealthy mountains of garbage in its major cities and these are dominated by plastic waste and polythene often set on fire or dumped in gutters or waterways. Often, plastic waste floats on rivers and ends up in the bottom of the oceans.

Yet, environmental activists are often silent on the toxic aspect of plastic as they mount a campaign against it. It appears not many know about the dioxins in it and what they do to humans and animals.

In Aba market, no one feels bothered about this dangerous chemical despite suffocating odour oozing from the Goro pit. That is not surprising since many traders and residents do not know their health status. Awareness about cancer and its causes is low among low-income earners in Nigeria.

Tons of waste — visibly plastic, polythene, and other domestic waste and perhaps industrial waste – make a mountain of the landfill and are already taking over part of the main road.

The dumpsite is home to all kinds of waste, but plastic and polythene dominate it. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

Locals say the pit, one of the five in the city, has existed for more than three decades. Waste from all over Aba town ends up there.

Unaware of the danger lurking in the landfill and the flooded pathway opposite his shop where he displays plastic gallons for sale notwithstanding, Bestway Nwabo, does not consider the Goro pit a health risk that can shorten his lifespan.

According to the WHO, an estimated 116,000 new cases of cancer and 41,000 cancer-related deaths were recorded in Nigeria in 2018. This figure may increase due to the open burning of plastic waste across Nigeria.

For over four years, Nwabo and his neighbours including Blessing at the Enyimba junction had endured all that came from the dumpsite—smoke from the burning of refuse, the offensive odour and flood that annually takes over the road in front of their stalls but, according to him, they never complained to anyone.

“The smell disturbs the market but you know its government’s work now, there is nothing you can do as an individual,” says Nwabo.

“And there is nothing you can do about it because they believe as government, whatever they choose to do is what they will do. As far as Ariaria market is concerned, it is like they don’t have anybody that can talk for them in government.”

“There was a time it rained heavily and this area was flooded, plastic waste was washed into my shop,” a shop owner who declined to be named recounts.

Plastic everywhere: Flooded road at the Enyimba junction near the dumpsite.
Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

“Once it rains, here is flooded with plastic”, he adds. But what have they done?

The plastic gallons dealer says nothing is done and people feel at ease cohabiting with the waste.

“What can we do? We cannot do anything,” he says with a mien of lost hope. This underscores the level of environmental education and awareness among residents in Aba.

From the landfill, the risks to environmental safety, public health, and welfare of citizens are severe. Almost on a daily basis, plastic and other waste are set on fire to reduce the mountain of garbage.

The Goro pit, Nwabo observes has not attracted the attention of the Abia State government. He argues that the state government does nothing to remove or manage the mountain of waste there.

“Dem dey carry dirty dey come now dey pack am for the dumpsite. Dem no dey pack dirty comot from the place, dem dey pack dem come that pit,” he says in Pidgin English, pointing to the direction of the dumpsite.

Does he know that plastic waste is toxic when it is burnt? “I no know now my brother,” Nwabo answers innocently. “There is nothing we can do about it,” he adds.

Chinoso Ebube, a cloth seller in the market laments that the smoke from the dumpsite is a serious health risk. “This thing is causing a lot of problems in this market. I mean the burning of the refuse,” says Ebube as he swallows a morsel of akpu, local staple food made from cassava, in a nearby restaurant.

“Some people are sick because of the chemicals in it because I know that plastic causes cancer when it is burnt.”

According to a report by Environmental Engineering Research, environments close to dumpsites are constantly exposed to the risk of infection, reduced agricultural yield, groundwater contamination, the decline in benthic communities due to toxicity and exposure to hazardous compounds.

The report indicates that experimental studies in Aba have shown that about 47.39 per cent of the total solid waste is organic and compostable whereas recyclable waste, including plastic, accounts for about 4.69–9.90 percent.

When contacted on what Abia State Environmental Protection Agency (ASEPA) is doing to manage the pit, Rowland Nwakamma, Deputy General Manager of the agency, was not available for comment. His Media aide, Alozie I. O. pleaded for time to seek permission from his boss to speak over waste management in the city.

However, an official of the agency who did not want to be named disclosed that the agency has started a collection of plastic waste. But the efforts look like a drop in the ocean – everywhere in the market is littered with plastic waste.

“We realise that these things block drainage and result in flooding, so we started sorting of plastic waste last year after the celebration of World Environment Day,” the official said. “We sort and collect plastic waste. Women who collect plastic waste are paid N200 per bag which contains 80 pet-bottles.”

Plastic waste takes over drainage. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

On the harmful effects of burning plastic waste, he says the agency does not subscribe to the burning of plastic waste. “We don’t burn waste in Abia State,” he says. “It is an illegal thing to burn waste in the state because we are wary of the hazardous effects as it releases carbon monoxide and you know it is poisonous.”

Since dioxin has been identified as one of those pollutants coming from the dumpsite, it is arguable that Aba residents, including market men and women, are only cohabiting with death.

WHO describes dioxins as environmental pollutants which it said belong to the so-called “dirty dozen” – a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

WHO asserts that dioxins are of concern because of their highly toxic potential, noting also that experiments have shown they affect a number of organs and systems in the human body.

 In Lagos plastic waste is choking people but no one cares

A mountain of plastic waste along Ikorodu road, Lagos State.
Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

Residents in high-density places in Lagos such as Ikorodu, Ikeja market, Mile 12 are not bothered by plastics clogging gutters, drainages, and floating on waterways – a major environmental concern fueling the problem of climate change globally.

But to these residents, plastic waste would normally flow away with water that brings it.

Like many other cities in Nigeria, waste management and, indeed, proper disposal of plastic waste, is a great challenge in Lagos.

Business Day in a report quoted Wale Adebiyi, Managing Director of WeCyclers, a company that collects plastic waste for recycling, as saying that Lagos is estimated to generate about 14,000 to 15,000 tons of waste daily. “Of that, roughly, 30 percent is recyclable, and 50 percent of this is plastic.”

A large proportion of the plastic waste ends up in landfills across the state, where they are either buried in the soil or set on fire and in most cases float on drainages and gutters as well as canals.

At Itowolo, a coastal settlement near Ikorodu, residents go about their normal business amidst floating plastic and other polythene products in their flood neighbourhood.

Residents of Itowolo, along Ikorodu in Lagos State don’t feel threatened by these plastic waste. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

According to James Bright, one of three young men who sit by a kiosk opposite a flooded area, the plastic waste came with the flood because a dam somewhere in Ogun State was opened due to excessive rainfall.

Bright, however, admits that the plastic waste is a serious environmental concern, because, “the water is not flowing because of the plastic waste.”

“They block the waterways,” he says.

Residents trace the origin of the floating plastic to Isheri River, located in Ogun State.

Bright insists the plastic will flow away if the grasses are removed. Where the plastic flows to, he doesn’t know.

But he and his co-residents of Itowolo are not alone in their nonchalant attitude to plastic waste. Generally, Lagos residents are not bothered.

A kiosk owner simply identified Alhaja, who sells smoked fish and drinks near a canal floating with plastic waste, says she is never disturbed by the plastic.

Like Itowolo, Ajegunle where Alhaja operates her kiosk is also flooded after recent heavy rainfall. In the midst of plastic waste floating everywhere, she displays her wares.

As for the canal next to her shop where plastic dances as water surges, she confirms that scavengers cannot get to the canal to pick the plastic because of its depth. This has become a fishing place for young boys after school.

Boys fishing at a plastic waste laden canal in Lagos. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

On September 5, 2019, Lagos State Government through its Ministry of Environment, as part of measures to rid the state off the menace of indiscriminate dumping of plastic waste, launched the Blue Box programme.

According to a document released by the State Ministry of Environment, the Blue Box programme was conceived to encourage residents to separate waste at the point of generation for recycling.

The government says it intends to create an enabling environment for private waste recyclers as part of the programme and creates a collection of PET bottles at Surulere, Apapa Road, Isolo, and other places where the house-to-house collection of PET is encouraged.

Folashade Kadiri, Assistant Director, Public Affairs at LAWMA explains that 50 per cent of the waste generated in Lagos contains re-usable resources that can be harnessed and channeled into the economy of the state from the dustbin, in the now-famous circular economy.

“We have embraced the principles of a circular economy, which would minimise wastage while providing a means of income to the populace,” Kadiri adds.

The entrance of the Blue Box initiative, the LAWMA official maintains, has heralded a new dawn in how people manage wastes in Lagos, as plastic wastes usually dumped at various landfills are now being extracted for recycling purposes.

According to her, Lagos State is expanding exponentially with an estimate of about 10 people leaving and 80 people coming every hour.

This development, Kadiri says, has had a massive effect on waste generation and disposal. “Our drainages, carnal and water bodies have been greatly impacted by the explosion with waste indiscriminately dumped at will.”

More still needs to be done in plastic waste management in Lagos. The city alone is said to contribute about 80 percent of Nigeria’s plastic waste. The State Ministry of Environment currently does not have statistics to support or debunk this claim.

However, the Waste Management Society of Nigeria (WAMASON) estimates that nearly 65 million metric tonnes of waste is generated in Nigeria per annum. It also estimated that Lagos generates 13 million metric tonnes of wastes. This is about 20 per cent of the total plastic waste.

No face mask, no vaccines: The unprotected life of scavengers

In Aba, scavengers don’t wear facemask or hand gloves to protect themselves. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

From Ariaria market to the northern commercial city of Kano and the western megacity of Lagos, scavengers are ubiquitous in stamping out plastic waste from the environment.

In dirty and often torn shirts and trousers as their uniforms, they are the unsung heroes in their self-appointed job, however, life-threatening it may be. They come face-to-face with dioxins, yet, they don’t know and have never gone for medical tests.

A recycler, Funto Boroffice says this about them: “They are the unsung heroes of the solid waste management sector in Nigeria, doing the work that a lot of us would not want to do. Urban waste pickers are among the poorest people in Nigeria and in FCT.”

Fifty-year-old Gilbert Onuoha, the chairman of the group, has worked as a scavenger for the past two years in the Goro landfill. Each time he and his men set out to look for their means of livelihood, they neither cover their faces nor use hand gloves despite obvious health risks involved.

Forming a colony behind an uncompleted building that serves as a warehouse for their sorted recyclable items, scavengers hit the top of Goro pit each morning looking for plastic waste, nylon, pure water sachets, broken plastics, and plastic parts of vehicles. They retire to their makeshift tents just some meters away from the dumpsite once the sun becomes unbearable.

A kilogram of plastic waste is sold between N50 and N120, depending on the forces of demand and supply, the scavengers revealed to The ICIR.

The leader of the park reveals that each one of them realises about N3,000 daily from the sale of plastic waste. “In Aba here, we have companies that are buying this plastic that you are seeing”, says Onuoha, sandwiched by fellowmen at work.

“Nylon is money here, plastic is money, but this takeaway foil is useless,” he adds taking stock of items that are sought after by scavengers and recyclers.

But there is a feeling of resentment in them for the state government, which they opined has no regard for them and their efforts.

Thirty-seven-year-old Ifeanyi Ezekiel, who is deputy to Onuoha, laments that he and his men carry out their work on the pit without vaccinations knowing well that they might be exposed to health risks. But vaccination is not the only thing they lack. They invade the landfill without facemasks or hand gloves.

Ezekiel, who is paying his way through the second year as a scavenger, says there was a report that governments in other countries vaccinated scavengers against diseases, but Abia State Government has not blinked eyelid to assist them.

“Government focuses only on money, we are here looking for our daily bread,” he says. “We hear that governments in other countries are giving vaccinations to their scavengers, but here nobody is concerned about our welfare.”

Kano’s maibola: The unwanted street urchins

In Kano, scavengers move from neigbhourhood to neigbhourhood in search of plastic waste. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

Ibrahim Abdullahi, 28, and Gadaffi Mohammed, 30, are members of a group popularly known as ‘Maibola’, a Hausa word for scavengers, they routinely move from neighborhood to neighborhood, gutters to streams and waterways to pick plastic waste.

Plastic waste is seen as an environmental concern and a threat to humanity, but to Abdullahi and Mohammed, it is their source of livelihood.

It is very rare to see anyone in Nigeria picking up or collecting drinking straws, biscuit wrappers, or other forms of plastic waste, for any purpose other than dumping with general wastes which are not sorted prior to incineration except these young men who oftentimes pass as drug addicts or street urchins.

In a week, they pile up heaps of pet bottles packed in a huge polythene bag waiting for buyers in a fenced plot of land.

They are always happy once it rains, particularly if it is heavy. The reason for their happiness after every rainfall is quite clear—there are always many plastics to pick and that means more money for them.

“When it rains, water brings much plastics here and that’s when we have the opportunity to pick more plastic,” says Abdullahi leaning towards the wall of a makeshift residence housing him and three other scavengers at Kwakwashe, Sabo Ngwa, Kano State.

Abdullahi and Mohammed, they survive picking up plastic waste across Kano city. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

Such is their feeling after an early morning rain had subsided – they are elated and scamper for plastic floating freely on the Kwakwashe stream.

Not all the floating plastic is valuable to them – the take-away foil that comes in droves is not picked.

“We pick only plastic bottles, pure water nylon, and anything plastic, but that food take away pack, we don’t take them because recyclers don’t buy them,” he says through an interpreter.

It is indeed their blessed day – they would not have to scavenge through the neigbhourhood that morning to secure their means of livelihood – plastic waste – thanks to the rainfall and residents who dispose of their plastic waste into the stream. Frequent rainfall, it seems, brings joy to them. In reality, though, they are only able to pick a fraction of the volume of plastic waste pushed out by rainwater.

For the past four years, the duo has moved around Kano neighborhoods rummaging dumpsites, landfills, scavenging waterways, and streams to pick plastic waste which they in turn supply to private recyclers in the city. They are part of over 25,000 scavengers in Kano city who work daily to remove 15 per cent of municipal solid waste that would have gone into the municipal solid waste stream.

For them to be able to meet up with their weekly supplies, they also engage other scavengers who move around the city to pick plastic waste and get paid by Abdullahi, Gadaffi, and Abubakar Mohammed who serve as the head of the group. Adamu Ishaku, who lives with them, is a picker and makes as much as N20, 000 in a month from picking and supplying plastic waste.

Many of what they pick is supplied to buyers at Dakata recycling plant and those in other recycling villages such as Dawaki Dakata.

Many of the plastic waste picked by scavengers are recycled here at Dakata Recycling plant. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

They are not aware of the negative impacts of plastic waste on humans and animals. Abdullahi and his colleagues, however, admit that plastic waste that escapes from being picked by them flows through the popular Kwakwashe stream into Wase Dam, in Wase Local Government Area.

Like many other Nigerians, scavengers who are only interested in picking plastic and supply to buyers say they do not know what happens to the plastic waste at Wase dam beyond seeing it floating on the water or clogging at one corner.

In Kano, like many other cities in Nigeria, a substantial part of the urban residents and suburban informal settlements of the metropolis have little or no access to solid waste collection services.

Lack of proper land use planning which resulted in the creation of informal settlements with narrow streets makes it difficult for collection trucks to reach many areas. The result is that a large portion of the population is left without access to solid waste management, making them particularly vulnerable.

As more and more pet bottles and other forms of plastic waste are finding their way into gutters, waterways, and rivers in Kano – often time clogging the waterways and causing flooding – the state government has no clear cut policy to address the challenges.

Despite findings from a municipal survey in 2017 by Kano State Refuse Management and Sanitation Board (REMASAB) that put the total plastic waste in selected areas in the state at 25.14 per cent of the total waste, the government relies largely on activities of scavengers like Abdullahi, Mohammed, Abubakar, and others to rid the environment of plastic waste.

The government uses media advocacy such as jingles and dramas to discourage indiscriminate disposal waste, including plastic by residents. But there are no plans on how to manage the plastic waste other than what scavengers who are loathed by all and recyclers who are also few in numbers compared to the volume of plastic waste available are doing.

Shahayau Abdulkadir Jibril, Director Operations of REMASAB discloses that the state government has established a recycling plant that has not commenced operation.

Jibril: He could not give a particular policy Kano State has to manage plastic waste

“According to a survey that we have conducted in 2017, we selected some areas in Kano State, especially the low-density areas, the medium density, and the areas that have a large population,” Jibril says.

“We have collected the waste that we have found there and segregate the waste and in the long end, we have come to understand that the plastic waste is about 25.14 per cent of the total waste generated in these study areas.  This is the figure we have at hand for now.”

But he admits that the figure would have gone up due to population increase and increase in the number of factories making use of plastic as packaging items.

“Probably from 2017 to date definitely the volume of plastic waste might have increased due to the increase in the population and due to an increase in plastic industries around the city,” he adds.

No one has a record of the number of recyclers in Kano State. Jibril, whose office supervises the collection of waste, does not know too.

“Precisely I cannot say yes, but I know that quite a number of plastic industries operating here ranging from those producing soft drinks, bottled items, and those in production of containers such as buckets, plates, and others. There are so many plastic factories that are operating in Kano. I can’t say precisely their number but they are many.”

Is there a policy in place by the state government to manage this plastic waste, Jibril was asked during an interview with this reporter? His answer fell short of expectations. “Of course, the state government has already put in place some mechanism that will try to address the issue of plastic that is being generated in the state, he begins.

“Already there is a place that was established by the state government where it will be handling the issue of plastic into a recycled line. That is already in place but it is yet to be in operation. Secondly, there are other international donor agencies that are in touch with the state government trying to intervene in the management of waste, not only plastic but other waste.

“The intention is to turn them into more valuable materials such that they can be raw materials for other processing industries. These are some of the policies put in place. For example, there is a proposed recycling plant that is going to be established in one of the local governments.

“The company is called Sharadukia which means waste is wealth. Already the site is under construction now and these are the policies put forward by the state government to handle the plastic waste generated everyday,” these are the policy measures by the government according to him.

Part of the policy, Jibril also adds, was a plan by the state government to integrate the scavengers and also rehabilitate them.

“Friday last week we held a meeting with the scavengers association, recyclers association and other stakeholders in that line,” he says.

“Government has in mind that we want to integrate them into our system so that the government will consider them probably giving them a loan so that they can boost their recycling capacity and also find a market for them.

“We want to integrate them, especially those that are picking plastic, we want them to be formal instead of the way they are treating themselves.”

The scavengers are not moved, because they have received many of what they call ‘empty promises in the past.’

“The government is aware of what we are doing but no incentives from them,” says Abubakar who is the leader of the quartet. He adds, “last year, some people came here with a promise to help us to establish but they never showed up again.”

And he and his men feel bad that once a crime is committed in the city they are the first suspects that police look for – the reason is many people believe scavengers are drug addicts who also get involved in crimes of all kinds.

“People treat us bad when we go out picking plastic because they think we are thieves,” Abubakar laments, “and if police are looking for criminals from anywhere they come here to pack us.

In reality, drugs are associated with a number of scavengers, but these young men deny taking drugs. “We don’t smoke weed, but some of us smoke cigarettes, “he reveals.

What happens to the plastic that is not recycled? Naturally, they end up in waterways where scavengers like Abubakar and his group pick them and at worst on landfills where they are burnt and release the toxic chemical into the atmosphere.

In search of daily bread: Scavengers in Lagos go to the extreme

But for their efforts, plastic would have drowned Lagos residents who are careless about its environmental impacts.

Jubril Sabitu and Lawal Ahmed always risk their lives to pick plastic waste in Ikorodu and environs, Lagos State. Often, they go as far riverbanks in search of plastic. Photo Credit: YEKEEN Akinwale

Jubril Sabitu and Lawal Ahmed always risk their lives to pick plastic waste in Ikorodu and environs, Lagos State. Often, they go as far riverbanks in search of plastic.

While Sabitu pushes a cart loaded with plastic bottles, Ahmed guides the two-wheeled cart in the front. They are heading for White House, Mile 12 where scavengers assemble plastic waste and sell to buyers.  They are just returning from Majidun River, where they had gone to pick plastic waste.

They would harvest more plastic waste floating on the river but they could get drowned because of the depth of the water.

“We only pick those on the grass,” Sabitu quips, “the water is deep and we can’t get there.”

For them, rainfall and riverbank are key sources of plastic and they usually go to the riverbank to scavenge or comb gutters, waterways, and canals around Ikorodu area of Lagos State.

Three years in Lagos after migrating from Kano in search of greener pasture, Sabitu and Ahmed say they are happy scavenging even when the proceeds might not be much.

“The money we make here is not much because we eat from it, drink and sometimes smoke from it too,” Ahmed says. But he wouldn’t mind a better work if he can secure one.

The duo collects as much as 50 kilogram of plastic waste a day. A kilogram of plastic waste costs N70, which amounts to N3, 500 per day for them.

Vague legislation, empty policy—Nigeria is indifference to plastic waste

Nigeria at the moment has no policy in place on plastic waste management, and a proposed bill to ban the use of plastic by the House of Representatives is yet to be perfected. The Federal Government’s N392 million plastic waste recycling plants are in ruins— the recycling plants awarded in 2009 by the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan located in 26 cities including Abuja have been allowed to waste away.

In May 2019, the House of Representatives passed a bill banning the use of plastic in the country, heralding the first attempt by the government to control the plastic waste challenge in the country.

While the Bill, which has since not been signed into law by the President, proffered alternative – paper bag in place of plastic – it criminalises The sale of anything in plastic, its manufacture, and importation. It is, however, silent on what happens to the existing plastic in the environment or what use they can be put to. Activists also kicked against the use of paper bags as an alternative as it is also a threat to the ecosystem, considering its potential for contributing to deforestation.

A recent study reveals that approximately 4,390,000 tons of ethylene polymers (polyethylene, ethylene-vinyl acetate copolymers, and other polymers of ethylene) – raw materials for plastic making were imported into Nigeria between 1996 and 2014.

This means that about 30 per cent of plastic was imported in its primary form, accounting for 19 per cent of total plastics imported during this period, says the report that took inventory of plastic imports in Nigeria.

These plastics are used in the production of supermarket bags, plastic bottles, medicine jars, combs, rope, carpet, plastic film, garbage cans, furniture, fertilizer bags, refuse sacks, irrigation pipes, and some bottle caps. And all these products are abundantly present in Nigeria.

Environmental experts say these products are in high demand and are increasingly used, and consequently, large quantities have been dumped as waste.

Of the first 20 countries with the worst plastic waste management in the world, Nigeria ranks 11th with 0.52 million metric tonnes of poorly managed plastic waste per year, Chigozie Chikere, a lecturer at the Institute of Maritime Studies, University of Lagos says.

He quotes the Ocean Atlas 2017 published by Heinrich Boll Stiftung, The Green Political Foundation as giving the statistic.

“Of this staggering figure, 0.21 million metric tonnes find their way into the ocean. Nigeria still needs to do more,” he adds.

Chikere, who also campaigns against plastic waste in the oceans and waterways, laments that as the environment is littered with plastic waste so are poor slum dwellers exposed to poisoning from sachet water produced in very unhygienic places.

The surrounding water bodies are not left out as city dwellers pollute them on a daily basis with plastics, nylons, and human waste mostly from the slums.

This trend will continue regardless of the concerted effort of the government to keep it in check because of the attitude of Nigerians to plastic waste disposal.

Though recycling is an internationally acclaimed procedure for plastic waste management, it is still a process that converts plastic to plastic, Chikere contends.

To augment the recycling preference, he says, the government should further hold bottled water manufacturers to account through proper legislation.

Banning the use of plastic is a step in the right direction provided a sustainable biodegradable alternative that is provided as a replacement.

In the proposed bill to ban the use of plastic, the National Assembly only states fines for the violator but failed to indicate alternatives to plastic except for paper bags. The lawmakers fell short of prescribing better ways of managing plastic waste too.

“It would only amount to a merry go round if the government should revert to the paper bag which has earlier been rejected for its role in deforestation,” Chikere argues.

Regina Folorunsho of the Nigeria Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR) says the government can help by getting the salient groups of people to create awareness on the damaging effects of single-use plastics. She posits that plastic products such as bags, plates, straws and others should not be used again. In their place, Folorunsho says, “we should go back to what it used to be in the 50s whereby we used vegetative leaves to serve food.”

“We used cotton bags to shop. Those are things we ought to be doing to save the environment,” she told Deutsche Welle.

As if to corroborate her argument, supermarkets in Asia are now using banana leaves instead of plastic packaging. According to a report, supermarkets in Vietnam have adopted an initiative from Thailand that makes use of banana leaves instead of plastic as a packaging alternative. There are plans already by those supermarkets to package their fresh meat products with banana leaves while others are planning to replace plastic with leaves nationwide very soon.

The scary plastic waste statistics

Only nine per cent of the 6.3billion tonnes of plastic produced globally to date has ever been recycled, says #Noplasticwaste, a website dedicated to the campaign to end the use of plastic.

According to the website, plastic waste breaks down into micro and nano plastic and usually ends up in the oceans and seas. Recent studies have shown that plastic waste is a source of marine litter, and Nigeria ranks 6th in global plastic marine litter release.

“There are as many as 51 trillion micro-plastic particles — 500 times more than the stars in our galaxy — in our oceans and seas.” It argues that, by 2025, there will be one tone of plastic for every three tones of fish.

Around the world, almost one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, Reuters revealed in a report titled, drowning in plastic.

It says plastic production has surged in the last 50 years, leading to the widespread use of inexpensive disposable products that are having a devastating effect on the environment.

Images of plastic debris-strewn beaches and dead animals with stomachs full of plastic have sparked outrage, Reuters adds.

Quoting data from Euromonitor International, it says more than 480 billion of these bottles were sold last year alone. That’s almost one million every minute. “If all of the plastic bottles sold in 2018 were gathered in a pile, it would be higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.”

Top plastic using brands is making a pledge to reduce the volume of plastic waste but the impact is yet to be felt. In 2017 alone, Cocacola produced 3000,000 tonnes of plastic which is the equivalent of 200,000 pet bottles in a minute, Deutsche Welle reports.  Nestle is responsible for over 1, 700, 000 tons of plastic annually while Danone produces around 750,000 tonnes annually and Unilever with 610,000 tonnes.

Bottling companies and recyclers’ efforts

In Nigeria, efforts to rid the environment of plastic waste by the government, bottling companies and recyclers are yet to make a meaningful difference.

Plastic waste washed off the beach in Lagos. Photo Credit: FBRA website

This is attributed to many years of neglect of the PET bottles without collection, the recent influx of new entrants to the bottling industry, and the relatively cheap nature of plastic as a packaging ware.

For so many years these bottles have not been collected and they have been either in the gutter, drainages or in a canal, says Nwamaka Onyemelukwe, Technical Lead, Food and Beverage Recycling Alliance (FBRA).

FIBRA is an industry coalition group formed in 2018, comprising food and beverage companies that evolve a programme called Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) under which they agreed to enable the recovery of packaging materials from the environment in order to have a sustainable environment. Five major companies: Nigeria Breweries, Nigeria Bottling Company, Coca Cola, Seven-Up Bottling Company, and Nestle.

Part of the commitments made by members of the coalition is for them to design packaging materials that are 100 per cent recyclable.

“It’s a journey. Most of us have not gotten to 100 percent recyclability,” says Onyemelukwe who is also Head Public Affairs, Communications and Sustainability at Coca Cola.

“But then for us in Coca Cola, all our packaging, are 100 percent recyclable as at today,” she reveals. Every other member of the alliance has until 2025 to meet up with that commitment.

The company, she says, is also stepping up a campaign on the collection of plastic waste.

“It is not acceptable that they should be in the drainage, go to the ocean, or litter the environment. So we started what we call the buyer back scheme where we are partnering with the identified local collectors that we have,” she explains.

“Our desire is that it should be recycled into another bottle so that we can use it back in operations.”

Sade Morgan, Chairperson of FBRA and Corporate Affairs Director at Nigeria Breweries, says besides the recycling alliance, the association is also embarking on consumers’ engagement and awareness across Nigeria.

She admits there are toxic chemicals in the plastic waste when burnt.

“We realise that in order to stop these plastics from getting to landfills where it is burnt and get this kind of issue is that each of us needs to understand that these plastics need to be disposed of separately.”

She reveals there is a partnership between the group and recyclers association in Nigeria to collect plastic waste for recycling. “So we are not only collecting, but we are also driving recycling,” Morgan explains.

However, the FBRA chairperson notes that the ultimate goal of the association is to have a recycling facility in Nigeria. According to her, there are ongoing talks with Indorama and other multinational that are interested in establishing a recycling facility in Nigeria.

“From 2015 till date, we have collected about 3000 metric tonnes of plastic waste. However, it is a far cry because in 2018, 180,000 metric tonnes of plastic waste was generated. We are far away.”

On her part, Olufunto Boroffice, Chief Executive Officer of Chanja Datti Ltd, a recycling plant in Abuja, sourcing plastic waste for the plant comes from a number of suppliers.

“We have different models, we buy waste from local collectors, we work with organizations that have made a pledge to consume and dispose of their waste responsibly such as Transcorp Hilton Hotel, some embassies and donor agencies like the Swiss Embassy, US Embassy, Norwegian Embassy, GIZ etc,”Boroffice reveals.

“And we work with water factories such as Nestle Water Factory, Elim Water, MZ Diamond to get rid of their scrap and defective plastic waste. We also have community initiatives such as Cash4Trash, Bottles4Books that allows us to clean our communities and provide sources of livelihood and school fees for those that need it, in exchange for waste collected.”

As the Vice President of Recycling Association of Nigeria (RAN) she says only a fraction of plastic is being collected and recycled at the moment. In a month, her plant recycles about 200 Tons of plastic waste a month. Currently, she says there are over 200 recyclers across the country.

    Borrofice believes more collectors and recyclers are needed to join the movement if any meaningful impact would be recorded.

    “The biggest issue is the collection process. We need more collectors and recyclers to join the movement and we need more homes and offices to sort their waste at source making it easier to recycle.”

    “When the waste is mixed together, it adds another level of complexity to recycling, thereby making it harder to recycle them into new products.”

    * This investigation was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR

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