Plastic Bags: Environmental Hazard or Modern-Day Convenience?

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By Yinka Agidee

Plastic shopping bags popularly called “nylon” in Nigeria are a modern-day household convenience, handed out to us every time we buy goods from retailers and which, we probably believe we cannot do without. However, the danger posed to our society by the unregulated use of these bags, is undoubted.

Their harmful effect on the environment stem from the fact that they do not decompose easily because they are made out of non-biodegradable substance: polythene, which scientists believe could take up to 1,000 years to decompose on land and 450 years in water, during which time, they separate into smaller toxic particles and contaminate the soil, waterways and fill up landfill sites.

Plastic bags are responsible for most of the litter on our streets, landfills, dumpsites, and beaches and oceans. Large buildups of plastic litter can clog drainage systems and exacerbate deadly floods. In water, they choke wildlife. In November 2013, the European Commission stated that the stomachs of 94 per cent of all birds in the North Sea were found to contain plastics.

Incinerating or burning plastic litter, releases toxic substances into the atmosphere and pollutes the air.
Plastic bags are not easy to recycle because there is virtually no commercial market for recycling them. It costs more to recycle a bag than to produce a new one, consequently, less than 1 per cent of bags are recycled because of the economics. They are made from petroleum, a scarce natural resource and add to our demand for oil and the consequent release of greenhouse gases (GHGs), responsible for global warming and climate change, into the atmosphere.

The list could go on and on, yet there appears to be inadequate recognition of the potential cost of plastic litter and the environmental hazard they create, as the government has been slow to do anything about them, while they continue to accumulate at a staggering rate in our environment.

Most countries in the developed world recognise the environmental crisis created by plastic bags and are making concerted efforts to eliminate, reduce and/or regulate their use, through bans, recycling mandates and taxes or fees, particularly in light of the decision taken during the Climate Summit in Paris in November 2015, to keep the global temperature rise below the two degrees Celsius level.
In Australia, plastic bags have been totally banned. In Switzerland, Italy and Ireland, the use of plastic bags is discouraged through financial means such as tax or rebates for bag re – use. In November 2014, the EU unanimously approved a new law to slash the use of plastic bags, hoping to curb litter on land and spreading “plastic soup” in the world’s oceans.

Member states were given the option of either banning plastic bags or setting binding targets for the use of the same. In England, from 5th October 2015, a fee of 5p was introduced and is now charged by retailers for the use of plastic bags. In January 2018, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, pledged to end the plastic scourge in the UK within 25 years, while unveiling a long – term plan for the environment.

The good news is that these developments are not limited to the developed world alone. India, China, Bangladesh, Mexico, Rwanda and Uganda, have banned the use of plastic bags. Israel, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Taiwan and Singapore, have either banned or are moving toward banning plastic bags. The capital of Rwanda, Kigali is widely acclaimed as the cleanest city in Africa. Their journey to this achievement was greatly assisted when the manufacture and use of plastic bags was banned in Rwanda in 2008.

Coming home to Nigeria, the Federal Government in June 2013 announced its intention to ban plastic bags from 1st January 2014, in a bid to arrest the growing environmental hazard caused by plastic litter in Nigeria. The threat of the ban made a number of supermarkets stop printing their names on plastic bags, in anticipation of the ban, which unfortunately did not take place in 2014 as announced and is yet to be implemented.

Consequently, the unregulated manner in which, plastic bags are being produced and used continues unabated, causing environmental problems with lasting social economic implications to the development of our country. For instance, in a metropolis like Lagos, which is already struggling to cope with the huge rural urban migration, over-population and overcrowding, the waste management system is overstretched and there is hardly any area in the metropolis where you will not find plastic litter, despite the government’s best efforts. This situation is not limited to Lagos, it’s all over the country and more pronounced in our cities.

The overwhelming negative impact of plastics on the environment should cause the government to follow through on its decision to ban plastic bags. State governments are encouraged to follow on this initiative in their respective states.

As with other countries that have successfully implemented the ban, there will be a need to create awareness to sensitise people about the harmful effects of plastic bags on the environment through social media campaigns and blogs amongst other platforms, engage stakeholders, including manufacturers and importers of plastics who would have valid concerns about the future of their businesses.

There would also be a need to encourage bag re-use, introduce suitable alternatives such as ‘bags for life’, paper or cloth bags in our markets and super-markets, and set up effective structures for the enforcement of the ban. It must be noted that for any ban to be effective, it must have the support of the people.

To aid compliance, the government may start with a focus on the big supermarkets chains, as was done in England, directing them to impose a minimal charge for plastic bags and invest the proceeds in environmentally friendly projects. Establish a committee from relevant agencies such as the National Environmental Standard and Regulation Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Federal Ministry of Environment (Department of Climate Change), the waste management institutions, which would be responsible for enforcing the ban, imposing the necessary penalties for breach of the regulations, ensuring investments in green projects and control the entry of plastic bags into the country.
There is no doubt that the whole process, would require a whole new orientation for all of us, whether as individuals or collectively as a nation, but it would certainly lead to cleaner cities, beaches and oceans in Nigeria, an overall healthier environment and our contribution to keeping down the level of GHGs in the atmosphere and keeping the planet safe for ourselves and future generations.

* Agidee of the Law firm of The Rock and Partners, Lagos, acknowledges the contribution of ELAW, Oregon USA