Ha v e  y o u  e v e r wondered what goes on in the belly of the fish and other marine animals? These are questions that currently begs for answers. Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fishes, to other marine animals.

Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones are known to have been affected by plastics, with nearly all seabird species eating plas tics unknowingly. Most of the deaths of animals are caused b y e n t a n g l e m e n t o r starvation. Plastic pollution, has become a norm in the region, with the advent of the global pandemic of COVID-19 through the introduction of single-use facemasks.

Never before, have we seen t h e m a g n i t u d e o f indiscriminate dumping of all kinds of solid waste as seen recently, from pollution of w a t e r b o d i e s t o t h e environment.

Several factors have been listed to contribute to increasing rate of plastic pollution in the region, with rising human population, food industry packaging, poor e n v i r o n m e n t a l w a s t e management systems, among others.

Today, single-use plastics account for 40 percent of plastics produced every year. Many of these products such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a lifespan of mere minutes to hours, yet, they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

A c c o r d i n g t o U N Environment Programme, single-use plastic product pollution is a serious issue that needs urgent and sustained action at all levels of society.

UNEP in its report on Addressing Single-Use Plastic Product- Using a L i f e C y c l e A p p r o a c h , encouraged member states to promote actions that leads to keeping resources at their highest value by replacing them with reusable products.

Around the world, efforts to address plastic pollution is moving away from hoping that recycling will resolve the problem, and acknowledging that there needs to be a drastic cut in the amount of plastic being produced and used.

Different countries are trying a r a n g e o f a p p r o a c h e s t o discourage plastic production and use, mostly through taxes, outright bans, or a combination of the two.

In china, in September 2021, the S t a t e C o m m i t t e e f o r Development and Reforms, together with the Ministry of Ecological Environment, unveiled a plan to combat plastic pollution for the 14th five-year plan (2021-2025).

The Action Plan, jointly issued by the National Development and Reform Commission and the PRC Ministry of Ecology and Environment, details measure to reduce the production and use of plastics, develop alternatives to plastics, and significantly reduce the amount of plastic waste in landfills and its leakage into the environment over the 14 Five-Year Plan.

According to the plan, by 2025, key sectors such as retail, e-commerce, and express delivery should drastically reduce the unjustified use of single-use plastics.

The country will encourage the use of alternatives to plastics such as bamboo, wood, paper, and biodegradable plastics. It will also expand research into degradable p l a s t i c s t e c h n o l o g y a n d contribute to the organized d e v e l o p m e n t o f r e l a t e d industries.

Already, some 26 African countries have banned plastics in recent years. African cities are on the frontline of the problem of plastic pollution on the continent. Cities are development hubs, where nearly half of the region’s populations now live, and where the bulk of these country’s waste is generated.

It also means that they have to cope with the infrastructure damage and health hazards resulting from uncontrolled waste dumping, which clogs up storm water systems, causing flooding, contamination of stagnant water, and disease outbreaks.

As of 2019, travelers to Tanzania, had to pack very carefully when the country announced the implementation of the second phase of its plastic bag ban on May 16.

Visitors were advised to avoid packing or carrying any plastic bags as they would have to forfeit them at a designated desk in the airport.

The first phase of the country’s anti-plastic initiative began in 2017 to “protect the youth and environment,” with an initial ban on the manufacture of plastic bags and in-country distribution. Phase two extends to tourists.

“The government does not intend for visitors to Tanzania to find their stay unpleasant as we enforce the ban,” said a statement from vice president Samia Suluhu’s office.

“However, the government expects that, in appreciation of the imperative to protect the environment and keep our country clean and beautiful, our visitors will accept minor inconveniences resulting from the plastic bags ban.”

But on this matter, the West is playing catch-up to Africa, where the first ban on plastics law was brought in over ten years ago. South Africa introduced a levy on plastic bags in 2004, Eritrea banned them entirely in 2005, and Rwanda did the same in 2008. Today, sixteen African countries have taxed or banned disposable plastic bags, including Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda, Mauritania and Morocco.

African governments have long understood the threat of plastic, because it is visible every day. With limited access to safe freshwater, millions of Africans rely on plastic bottles or sachets of drinking water provided by companies like Nestlé and Coca-Cola.

While the UK’s plastic is whisked away to be recycled or buried in a foreign field. 90% of African plastics are abandoned at their point of use. As a result, torn and discarded plastic bags are so ubiquitous in Africa that they have been jokingly referred to as the continent’s ‘national flower’.

The Mala wi Government imposed the ban on thin plastic bags in 2015, but the move was overturned by the high court after a number of plastics manufacturers obtained an injunction, citing an “infringement of business rights”. Last year, the supreme court dismissed the ruling.

The ban was introduced to reduce plastic waste found in the country’s lakes and waterways. Malawi has a number of freshwater lakes that provide food and livelihoods for many people.

A report commissioned by the government, with support from t h e U N D e v e l o p m e nt Programme and the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, warned that the country’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Malawi, could run out of fish stocks by 2050 unless the use of thin plastics was curtailed.

The Lilongwe Wildlife Trust said Malawi produced 75,000 tons of plastic a year, 80% of which cannot be recycled.

Kenya’s ban on plastics was legislated in August last year, and it is the strictest in the world. The penalties, which allow for up to four years in prison for producing or even using plastic bags, may seem an over-reaction.

But environmentalists are hailing the policy as a long overdue and much-needed step forward for the country. Until recently, Kenya hosted most of Africa’s plastic bag manufacturers.

In 2015 in Ghana, blocked drains triggered flash-floods that killed over 200 people.

Given this, bans on plastic bags sound like unmitigated good news for Africa, but there are reasons to be cynical. This is the f o u r t h t i m e K e n y a h a s announced legislation against plastic, after 2005, 2007 and 2011 laws were ignored.

Similarly, Tanzania announced bans on thin plastic bags in 2006 and again in 2013, but they remain in use. The truth is that after the flurry of positive headlines dies away, plastic bans face an uphill struggle when it comes to implementation.

Other African countries should also consider such measures, in order to avoid the serious health hazards and environmental fallout as the use of plastics continues to grow on the continent, and as countries’ waste management systems fall behind in terms of managing their waste.

Governments globally have already begun to explore the alternative solutions towards single-use plastics.

In 2018, Nigeria was estimated to have discharged about 200,000 tonnes of plastic wastes into the ocean, while its annual plastics production is projected to grow to 523,000 tonnes by 2022.

Nigerian government officially joined the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), a platform that works with governments, businesses and civil society to translate plastic pollution commitments into concrete solutions.

“The goal is to deliver a national action plan for radically reducing plastic pollution, connecting high-potential solutions with strategic financing opportunities.

“With this partnership, Nigeria is f u r t h e r r e i n f o r c i n g i t s commitments and effor ts towards addressing plastic pollution and safeguarding the environment,” Nigeria’s Minister of Environment, Mohammad Mahmood Abubakar, said.

A c c o r d i n g t o s o m e environmental exper ts, a worrisome trend is the littering of water bodies with used face masks, plastic bottles and other non-biodegradable plastics.

They said that there was need for concerted efforts to manage the impact of COVID-19 in the environment. Describing disposable face masks and plastic bottles and other non-biodegradable plastics as the next biggest environmental threat, Mr Sylvester Arogundade of Earth and Environment Initiative, noted that if not disposed correctly, they may end u p i n t h e e n v i r o n m e n t , freshwater systems and the oceans.

He said it was worrisome that countries had no data to ascer t ain the amount of disposable face masks in the environment, and called for end to indiscriminate dumping of plastics into the nation’s water bodies.

Corroborating further, he noted that if not curtailed effectively, these plastics could release harmful chemical and biological substances indirectly to plants, animals and humans.

“ W e a r e c a l l i n g f o r standardisation, guidelines and strict implementation of waste management laws for all kinds of plastics.

“We also call for Nigeria to replace disposable masks with reusable face masks like cotton masks, we should begin to consider the development of

biodegradable disposal masks.”

On his part, Dr Ibrahim Choji, Chairman, Board of Trustees, C l i m a t e a n d S u s t a i n a b l e D e v e l o p m e n t N e t w o r k (CSDevNet), called on the Federal Government to go beyond rhetoric and set in motion the process of banning single-use plastic in Nigeria.

According to him, while plastic has many valuable uses, Nigeria has become over-reliant on single-use or disposable plastic with severe environmental consequences.

“CSDevNet recognises that beating plastic pollution is a huge challenge especially when we consider the perverse culture of current disposable economy.

“Dumping plastic bottles, bags and cups after a single use is holding more litter than fish by 2050, while an estimated 99 per cent of all seabirds will have ingested plastic.

“We need fish, not plastics, the Federal Government has a major role to play in beating plastic pollution and particularly addressing the current scourge of plastic waste on urban and rural landscapes across Nigeria.”

He said that several African countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Mauritania, Tunisia, Ke n y a , U g a n d a , Rw a n d a , Tanzania, Morocco, South Africa have enacted laws related to the ban on the use, manufacture and importation of single-use plastic bags.

“We believe Nigeria can toe this line by providing incentives such as tax breaks for companies to encourage recycling as well as totransform their production p r o c e s s e s t o w a r d s t h e production of biodegradable alternatives.

“The country can also strictly enforce legislation as part of a h o l i s t i c p r o g r a m m e f o r sustainably transforming the economy and banning all non-biodegradable plastics from the country.”

Choji added that the organisation in partnership with Federal Ministry of Environment and Oxfam Nigeria, was engaging stakeholders to review Climate Resilience, focusing on policy i s s u e s a r o u n d w e t l a n d s conservation.

This, he noted, would improve governance of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Responses with s tronger wetland policy alignment He said it would also improve action plans with realistic short, medium and long-term plans for achievement of government’s goals on wetland conservation in Nigeria and development of indicators for effective tracking of progress.

Adding his voice, Mr Ahmed Shehu, an environmental expert, called for adoption of cotton-based cloth masks and complete ban on single-use face masks and single-use plastics.

He stressed that continuous use of single-use plastics, which are non-biodegradable is a big threat to the environment.

“Plastic pollution is a threat to the environment, most of them wash up into our water bodies, we must act now to protect our environment.

“If we want to reduce plastic pollution on our planet, the solution is simple- reduce, reuse and recycle.

“Knowing what the top contributors of plastic pollution are we can reduce the plastic products we use and replace them with other environment-f r i e n d ly a l te rn at i ve s ‘ ‘ h e emphasised.

All in all, environmentalists recommend, therefore, that African countries like Malawi should consider following through with the implementation of the ban on plastic bags, but that it should also extend to include all single-use plastic.

They opined that this ban needs to be supported by strong advocacy campaigns, public e d u c a t i o n , a n d s t r i c t enforcement, saying subsidies or other forms of assistance could help to stimulate recycling and the development of alternatives to plastic packaging, where necessary.

They call for the introduction of p o l l u t i o n t a x e s o n t h e production and use of other plastics could help draw in revenue that could be put towards improved was te management.

According to them, there also needs to be better monitoring of the production and consumption of plastic, and how plastic and other solid waste is managed.

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