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Let’s talk about plastic

PHOTOGRAPH BY FRED DUFOUR

We use materials, throw the remnants in our garbage and they leave our home, but where does this garbage go? What does it do to our environment and who suffers the consequences? According to these articles (1)(2)(3)(4), we do.

Solid waste management is a global issue, and while some countries have found ways to manage it (see Norway), majority still struggle. A major contributing factor to the solid waste problem is the materials we use and how they are disposed of. Plastic is regarded as one of the most troublesome solid waste materials.

Since 1950, the world has produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, of that; only 9% has been recycled. Most of our plastic (and other) waste ends up in landfill, and the sea, polluting our environment, and causing danger to sea life. ‘Most of the growth of plastic production has been the increased use of packaging, which amounts to over 40% of non-fiber plastic’ says Roland Geyer, UC Santa Barbara associate professor and contributing author in a project recently published in Science Advances

A study in South Africa found that 18% of our landfill is from compostable materials, meaning through responsible waste disposal and garbage separation, we can reduce landfill by this amount. Through responsible recycling and separating waste, we could reduce landfill even further. The problem now is that everything goes in one bag.

Currently, Nigeria’s waste management and waste collection system is less than satisfactory. Olakunle Akinlemibola, who recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Environment, Health and Safety from the University of Sunderland, believes that the government’s current approach could be improved upon. According to Olakunle, aggregated landfill begins to breakdown and produce gasses like methane, which have environmental and health risks. ‘Methane, which is highly flammable, is particularly risky for people who live and work around these landfill sites.’ he said over an interview conducted via email. Olakunle is currently carrying out research to find the best possible solutions for sustainable waste management and hopes to collaborate with the private and public sector to develop economic and social benefits through waste management and effective landfill control.  

Government support, regulations, and laws could regulate the amount of waste disposed of in landfill sites, and control of how public spaces such as restaurants, industries and businesses separate and dispose of their waste.

In a recent DW podcast, a woman in Berlin- who had tried to reduce her family’s carbon footprint by eliminating plastic for a month- found that even the most basic amenities such as paper pastry bags have some form of plastic wrapped around them. Packaging makes it difficult to reduce our plastic without changing our lifestyle. The benefit, according to this podcast is that the conscious decision to reduce our plastic use tends to reduce our overall spending.

Plastic does not break down like other man-made materials. Most of it ends up as waste in landfill, or in oceans and rivers, according to a research report in journal Science Advances. In 1960, plastic accounted for 1% of landfill across the world. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated the amount of plastic waste floating in the open ocean at about 35,000 tons.

The waste effects of plastic can be managed in three ways: Reduce(-ing the amount of plastic we use), Reuse(-ing; upcycling, reusing plastic bottles and bags), Recycle. Recycling, in recent years, has produced both economic and environmental values.  In a previous article, I discussed the current recycling trends in Lagos and how people are embracing its economic value. Due to the large amount of recyclable materials deposited as waste in landfill sites, informal salvaging- also known as scavenging- is widespread in Africa and has become a means of income for children and unemployed adults in a number of developing countries. Items such as containers for storage of household items, material to construct houses with, clothing, etc. and items that have a recyclable value and can be sold to recyclers. These practices are not regulated and have reparations like the health hazards mentioned in the interview with Olukunle. A recommendation from this report is recycling organizations- approved by government bodies or private companies hiring scavengers as home recyclables collectors to provide a steady, safe revenue stream.

Recycling and the ability to dispose effectively in Nigeria are perceived to be a bit of a struggle. A number of interviewed individuals, who know the values of recycling- asides from the ones who are unaware of the recycling companies currently operating- expressed that they do not recycle because they don’t believe we have the appropriate infrastructure, which is somewhat true. Recyclers have to compile the gathered materials and export them to interested parties and upcylers.

According to David Attenborough, if we do not find better waste (esp. plastic) management systems, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. We barely know what impact our waste problems have on the sea, what we do know is that the fish consume our plastic debris and this may have direct effect on our health. In other words, there is almost definitely a boomerang effect of poor plastic disposal.

The good news, according to Louise Edge-a Greenpeace representative, is that there are things we can do to stop the plastic scourge

So, yes, we don’t have it all figured out, but until we do, I have taken the liberty of making a list of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprints and landfill waste.

  1. Separate waste and send recyclables to any recycling company of your choosing: One of the struggles with effective recycling is that everything goes in one garbage can. To extract the valuables would require time, energy, water and electricity that could be used more effectively.
  2. Use less plastic. One way to do this would be to use less plastic shopping bags. You could take your own shopping bags to stores and markets, or refuse the bag if the item can fit in your pocket (do you really need a bag for an apple?)
  3. Reuse: Think Ice cream stew bowl
  4. Donate clothes rather than throwing them in the garbage (turn them into rags if they’re absolutely unusable)
  5. Purchase items made from recycled products: Check out Elle Recyclestore, LolaCrafts , Pearl Recycling and other upcycling businesses. Support local 🙂
  6. Recycle your kitchen waste by composting: Composting reduces kitchen waste, which reduces landfill waste. This article explores the benefits of composting and features a short how-to tutorial. Compost could be used in your small home gardens and sold, imagine making a little side money while you save the planet. Composting takes about two months with household garbage, but restaurants could totally do this easily– If you have a small farm, this is for you. Homemade manure is the best for organic farms and gardens.
  7. Visit pro-recycling sites: Sustyvibes’ My Recycle story features recycling companies. Find your match and get involved.

Bonus: Check out this fun idea

Be well

 

Tomiwa Isiaka
Tomiwa Isiaka is in her head a lot, so she writes, because that's what you do when you're in your head a lot.. She likes the sun, and that's what all this is about, environmental sustainability to keep the sun alive