By Tony Ogaga
According to statistics, about 14 billion metric tonnes of garbage is produced globally annually with plastic waste constituting 70 per cent of the waste. On its part, Nigeria is estimated to generate about 32 million metric tonnes of waste annually of which 2.5 million metric tones are plastic.
While some countries have gotten efficient models in their waste management systems, Nigeria is lagging in effective and proper waste management.
However, one Nigerian, Jane Tochukwu Umegbolu, determined to make a difference has taken the challenge to create awareness about the need for effective plastic and waste disposal management in order to preserve our coastal beaches and waters. In this interview, Umegbolu speaks about how she hopes to achieve her goal.
No doubt we have a plastic waste problem on our hands. What do you hope to achieve by creating awareness on the need for healthy and better methods of plastic waste disposal?
You are right to say we have a problem and it is starring us in the face. However, we have this mentality that it is not our responsibility to take care of this problem. Everywhere you go in any part of Nigeria, there is one plastic waste dump around you. It may be plastic bottles, used packs of sachet water, packaging plastic bags, condoms and other composite materials. Walk10 metres from where we are now and you will find a ‘rich harvest of plastic waste.’ That tells you that we have a big problem and we are not paying attention. Now, take a moment to imagine the hazards these materials cause which include environmental and health challenges. These plastics end up in the waters, sewage pipes and gutters and block free water flow thus leading to flooding. Once this happens, the pile of garbage starts building up and this creates a conducive environment for the breeding of mosquitoes and then we have malaria. There is also the issue of soil pollution, water pollution and air pollution. One thing we have to have in mind is that plastic stays around for ages; do not decompose because they are not bio-degradable. So the bottled water you threw carelessly into that gutter in January is still there causing havoc. So much exposure to plastic creates toxins that harm wildlife not to talk of global warming. Plastic sticks around in the environment for ages, threatening wildlife and spreading toxins which studies have found to be linked to asthma, cancer and liver damage including nerve and brain damage as well as kidney disease. When you ponder these issues, you would be forced to think twice on how you dispose of that plastic bottle with you.
That is scary! Is there data on how much waste is produced in Nigeria?
That is a question government should take seriously. The importance of having such data is that it helps in assessing what plastic materials are disposed, tonnage by state and localities. We need to build this into planning models in order to educate Nigerians on waste disposal. Government needs to make strict policies for manufacturers of plastics which will compel them to take some responsibility and help in educating the masses. Now imagine if the government makes a policy that manufacturers of plastic products should put up some awareness messages on their products just like they did with big tobacco, such a move will go a long way. I know you see small messages printed on plastic bottles of soft drinks but let us be realistic here; who checks the bottle when they want to refresh their thirst? The government should ask plastic products manufactures to print these messages very boldly on their products and if possible, include pictures of where these waste finally go to and the effects they are having on marine life. There is an estimated 5.25 trillion tonnes of plastic waste in the oceans. 269,000 tonnes float, four billion micro fibers per km² dwell below the surface, 70 per cent of the debris sink into the ocean’s ecosystem, 15 per cent floats while 15 per cent lands on our beaches. Now these are world data. In Nigeria, according to the Nigerian Ministry of Environment, Nigeria generates some 32 million tonnes of waste per year, of which 2.5 million tonnes is plastic waste. But the problem is that we do not have an efficient disposal, recycling and waste management system which deals with both plastic and non-plastic waste, most of which ends up in landfills, sewers, beaches and water bodies. Government needs to do more at improving plastic waste management but they need to start with first creating awareness. This is where I think the National Orientation Agency (NOA) should sit up and do its job. For now they are doing nothing but we are ready to work with them in providing models that can work.
Could you shed light on these models?
First and foremost is to get the kids involved. I can confidently tell you that my son was the one that made me go into taking care of the environment. I am a single mum and have a son that is eight years old. I have been taking him to the beach since he was three years-old. After every visit he kept asking me why the beach was very dirty. I offered to take him to a different beach but he refused and asked if we could clean the beach ourselves. I agreed and we have been doing this ever since. We are looking at starting Save the Environment Clubs in primary and secondary schools. The clubs will train the children on what, why and how we can take care of the environment. Once we start this we can partner with National Geographic Society to send materials to the participating schools and make then Environmental Safe guards. Now you may want to ask why we are targeting the young ones and I will tell you that today in Rwanda, they can live together as one after the 1994 genocide, then the younger generation should be the focus.
The Rwanda president concentrated on the young ones and that is why they are getting the results they are having now because those kids of 1994 have grown up today with a new mindset which is devoid of ethnicity. For the other levels of people in Nigeria, we will need enhanced awareness via radio, television and social media to raise the bar and make people understand why it is not good for them to dispose of plastics anyhow. We will be producing short videos of how plastic products not properly disposed travel and how it affects us and share across several channels. I have already mentioned the part of imaging on plastic bags and all that just as the tobacco industry were made to put dangers of smoking on the product packs.
Are these not very lofty ideas you are talking about considering the economic situation in the country?
I do understand what Nigerians are going through; I am going through the same. The Minister of the Environment recently mentioned that the government is focusing on recycling plastics to be used for pellets, blocks and other products. The awareness of the fact that you can make money from plastics waste should be amplified so people can dig into it and help reduce careless disposal.
So what is the frequency of the beach clean up you have done so far?
We have gone to several beaches across Lagos and will be doing some in the waters of Anambra State this month. The Covid-19 pandemic did affect some of the programs we planned but we should be up and going by next year.
Any plans to start an NGO focusing on this?
I am not thinking about that now because this is just a passion that I have. However, I am researching and examining models from other countries with a view to developing one that would suit our society. For now, my friends and some of my son’s friends are collaborating on this exercise and we will be expanding as we intensify our beach cleaning especially in the mornings because it serves as a form of exercise as well. I will be looking forward to your joining us.