Budding environmental activist, Ifechi Anikwe, examines how single-use plastics damage our health and environment and suggests practical solutions.

Environmental pollution is now a buzzword we casually throw about, so much so that its meaning is almost completely lost. Yes, we all acknowledge that our environment is being polluted. But how many of us realise that, individually, we are major contributors to this pollution problem every single day? Do we even realise how bad and dangerous the situation has become? And how many of us know what simple things we can do to help us and future generations survive in the planet we live in?

Here’s what many do not appreciate about environmental pollution. Every time we throw away things we no longer need, there’s always the fear that this could create problems for humans, plant and animal life. If this does, we have inadvertently helped to pollute our environment. It’s that simple.

Think, for instance, about plastics which we use and discard everywhere, everyday. People casually throw plastics away in our schools, homes, markets, parks, offices and roadsides. We throw plastic bottles out of vehicle windows in Nigeria. Others fling into gutters plastic wrappers, plastic water bottles, juice bottles, sachet water, and everyday single use plastic like styrofoam plates, plastic straws and cutlery.

We are praised whenever we do the right thing by packaging refuse in plastic bags to be collected by garbage trucks and deposited in landfills. But guess what? However we dispose of plastics, they find their way into water bodies – and we re-consume them one way or the other! On roadsides and at landfills, refuse and plastics decompose and give out dangerous gases that mix with the air we breathe. Contamination of decomposed plastic with air, soil, and water causes irreparable damage to human health and the growth of organisms.

How plastics damage our health

How plastics damage our health in Nigeria

Microplastics are extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.

They are known to be carcinogenic and mutagenic. Carcinogenic means that they are capable of causing cancer. Mutagenic means they can produce chemicals and radiations that multiply quickly to damage plant and animal life.

We use chemicals to produce plastic. Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, Biphenol A or BPA, lead, Mercury, and Phthalates are some of the toxic chemicals used in making plastic. These chemicals are not only toxic but remain toxic for a long time. How long? Studies show that plastics can take up to 20 to 500 years to decompose.

Over time, any plastic can be broken down by biological and mechanical processes. In this state, the chemicals will find their way into the human food chain. How? When we drink contaminated water or consume toxicated seafood!

And this is where we find the bad news for our florA and fauna.

In humans, these toxins have been directly linked to infertility, birth defects, and cancer.

In plants and animals, they cause destruction of ecosystems, ingestion and suffocation of marine species whenever plastic items find their way into water bodies. Thousands of sea birds and sea turtles die each year due to entanglement with plastic. Seals and sharks have been killed either by strangulation or by swallowing these products. Any animal unlucky enough to swallow microplastics will have its stomach filled up and its digestic tract blocked. Once this happens, the animal will no longer feel hungry and will gradually starve to death.

Governments can help

How plastics damage our health in Nigeria

Most people know the solution but cannot be bothered because they do not understand the gravity of the problem.

What is required is massive education and sensitisation on environmental issues. And the political will to deal with it. We can live cleaner, healthier lives.

For a start, governments at various tiers can enact proper laws and policies that make it easy for people to properly and hygienically dispose plastic. And also make it an enforceable offence to litter and pollute the environment.

At the basic level, environmental laws need to focus on management of garbage disposal, waste, and installation of recycling facilities

You and I can too

For governments, the simple solution to prevent plastics from finding their way into rivers and oceans is proper waste management and recycling.

Much however depend on us as individuals. Here are things every one of us can do:

  • We can limit plastic pollution by avoiding single use plastics such as plastic cutlery and plates. Rather than use plastic, we could switch to use of wooden pegs instead.
  • People can intentionally switch to reusable water bottles rather than continue with disposable water plastics.
  • Shopping? Take a cloth bag while shopping to reduce the use of plastic bags.
  • We could also reuse plastic containers instead of throwing them away immediately.
  • And all of us can join to educate those around us on the importance of reducing plastic consumption.

Conclusion

Without a doubt, one of the world’s greatest problems is plastic pollution. Who has not seen video clips of tonnes of plastic waste washing up onto beaches in coastal cities? Do we ask ourselves what danger we face with the result, which is microplastic pollution?

For now, Africa has not done much research on effects of microplastic pollution on plant and animal life in the continent. There is however one significant study that examined samples taken from four beaches in Lagos, Nigeria. The researcher found microplastic in all four samples, caused mostly by breakdown of larger plastic items due to littering and poor waste management. In other words our individual and government negligence encourage microplastic pollution.

Our public authorities are doing their best. However, most people agree that the level of sensitisation on environmental issues in Nigeria can be improved.

Nigeria needs to join the rest of the world in educating citizens and motivating them to reduce their demand and consumption of single use plastics. This is good for our health and it will help protect our flora and fauna.

How plastics damage our health in Nigeria