Some good news from the homeland – African countries are at the forefront of the fight against plastic bags. More than 15 countries on the continent have either banned them completely or charge a tax on them. This is a powerful reminder of two things: First, it reminds us that there are myriad possibilities around managing our environment in a responsible way. Second, it reminds us that our businesses should take the initiative to ensure that we effectively address plastic waste, taking up the challenge in partnership with government and civil society.
Over a decade ago, Rwanda put an embargo on the use of plastic bags, becoming one of the first countries to do so in the world. Rwanda’s status as one the world’s cleanest countries is not unconnected with its careful attention to the details of the human environment. Eritrea banned the use of plastic bags in 2005. In 2013, Mauritania banned the use, manufacture and import of plastic bags. In Kenya, selling or using plastic bags may earn one a four-year jail term or a $40,000 fine. Tanzania, Botswana, Tunisia, South Africa, Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Ethiopia and Malawi are also among countries that have limited the use or placed bans on the use of plastic bags. As nations across the world fine-tune their response to plastic waste, it is time Nigerian businesses and communities revisit our casual acceptance of plastic bags. This ‘convenience’ plays a key role in life-threatening floods, depleting fish stocks when we need food for our teeming population. These bags aesthetically blight our living space, destroy soil fertility – altogether dealing a blow to our quality of life.
Nigeria and the use of plastic bags
It is estimated that 50 billion plastic bags are used annually in Nigeria. It’s no surprise Nigerians have found several creative ways to utilize plastic bags. Plastic bags are used for faeces disposal (colloquially termed ‘shotput’ in the nation’s urban slums where sanitation facilities are limited) as raincoats or food containers. Plastic bags have become an integral part of everyday living in Nigeria. A study published by Nature entitled “River Plastic Emissions to the World’s Oceans” states that the Imo River, Cross River and Kwa Ibo River are responsible for 67% of global plastic inflow into the ocean. In 2014, the Federal Ministry of Environment announced a ban on the use of plastic bags. However, no consistent enforcement action was initiated to back up the plan. Indeed, Nigeria’s inability to get a grip on the use of plastic bags makes the efforts of other West African countries that have banned them less effective as plastic bags are smuggled into those countries from Nigeria.
Lagos – the urban challenge
Lagos State reportedly generates 9000 metric tons of waste daily, 86% of which is made of plastic bottles and bags. Each rainfall in Lagos is accompanied by the blockage of drainages with plastic debris, forcing water into buildings and creating rivers on the streets. Lagos State is home to over 2000 bottled and sachet water manufacturing and distribution companies. The ‘Pure Water’ business generates tonnes of plastic bag waste that harms the ecosystem. In an attempt to solve these environmental problems, Lagos has created a number of initiatives to curb the waste problem in Lagos. A few are LAWMA’s program to encourage the sale of used plastic bags to a state agency for recycling. Wecyclers social entrepreneurs also go from door-to-door to collect plastic waste. The Cleaner Lagos Initiative which began early 2018 is hopefully setting the stage for another assault on plastic waste in Lagos State.
Businesses taking the lead
Businesses have particular advantage in the fight against plastic pollution – as manufacturers, retailers and shapers of consumer preferences through marketing. Nigerian organizations should take a cue from leading businesses who have pledged to use 100% reusable or recyclable plastic packaging. They include, Amcor, Ecover, Evian, L’Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Walmart, and Werner & Mertz. Pointing to the power of awareness, the issue of plastic waste though not a new development, caused a public outcry after the public viewed the BBC series Blue Planet II. The UK government has budgeted £61.4m to fight the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Already, four Commonwealth countries have joined the UK in the fight -New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Vanuatu and Ghana.
Simple ways your company can rethink the use of plastics
Organizations often have difficulty working out ways their internal processes can be more environmentally friendly. Being conscious of the effect your organization’s daily operations has on the environment is important. This consciousness can deliver innovative solutions, whilst also building the ethical muscles of your organization. Ideas and opportunities for businesses include:
- Do a waste audit. Take a look at what is in your garbage. If you find that there is excessive packaging waste, you can engage with your suppliers to purchase supplies in bulk with minimal plastic packaging?
- Reuse All That You Can. It may seem more expensive upfront, but it will save you money in the long run. For example, you may replace plastic cups, cutlery and plates with real plates and silverware in the employee kitchen.
- Switch or ditch. One of the easiest ways your business can reduce its plastic footprint is by substituting plastics with other alternatives. When giving gifts to clients, do some research and find cheaper sustainable corporate gifts.
- Having a workplace recycling scheme will help reduce plastic waste and other types of waste.
At a broader level, there needs to be a change in consumer behavior (for instance, stopping the habit of littering) and product design (by manufacturers) coupled with commitment from governments and businesses to reimagine the use of plastics. Supermarkets and retailers also have to put a halt to the distribution of plastic bags. Success depends on constructive dialogue between business and policymakers to create policies, campaigns and strategies that positively reimagine communities we live in today.
Dr. Nwagwu is a Faculty member at the Lagos Business School
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