Give us this day our daily poison

*Plastic containers blocking water channel in Lagos

Greg Odogwu

“Today, 95 per cent of plastic packaging material value, or $80bn– $120bn annually, is lost to the economy after a short first use. More than 40 years after the launch of the first universal recycling symbol, only 14 per cent of plastic packaging is collected for recycling”

– The New Plastics Economy, a report by World Economic Forum

If the world was still ignorant of the catastrophe environmental pollution could become, it experienced a crude awakening when a whale died from eating plastic somewhere in Norway last year. Immediately after the touching discovery, the global media giant, Sky, started its eco-campaign known as Sky Ocean Rescue.

Yet, considering that experts are saying that by 2050, there will be more plastics in our oceans than there are fishes, I can still hear the hapless sea creatures wail, “Give us poison today, and you will not have us to fry tomorrow!”

Obviously, this is why the nations are in a new race for environmental and socio-economic sustainability, especially in the deployment of recycling policies and infrastructure. The race, just like other races, has countries that are at the forefront while others lag behind. This is understandable, as it is not a smooth ride because of the economic decision that has to be made to achieve any semblance of progress.

Presently, it is just a few countries that are making remarkable progress. Countries like Austria, Switzerland, South Korea, Sweden, and Germany top the list. But it is interesting to note that regarding plastics in specific terms, Germany is a visible role model, having already achieved 97 per cent in recycling plastics.

In Africa, Botswana, Eritrea and Rwanda were in the vanguard. Eritrea banned plastic bags in 2005. Botswana introduced a levy on plastic bags in 2007. Rwanda trailed a shining blaze when it completely banned plastic bags in 2008 as part of its Vision 2020 plan for sustainability. It is currently implementing this policy to the very letter.

Others are snuggling up. In 2014, Cameroon outlawed disposable plastic bags, while Mauritania banned the use, manufacture, and importation of plastic bags from 2013. Another success story is in Senegal which since January 5, 2016, banned manufacture and use of certain plastic bags, and Kenya joined last year with its new policy banning plastic bags.

However, the new eco-trend is proving a herculean task for the continent’s two biggest economies. In South Africa, the bag levy was introduced in 2004 although they were never banned. In Nigeria, I have yet to hear about any ban on plastic bags. The nearest to the policy, which is known as the Extended Producers Responsibility (where manufacturers take responsibility for the end-of-life waste from their products) was announced since 2014 by National Environmental Standards Regulations Enforcement Agency, but nothing has been heard from either NESREA or the Ministry of Environment since then.

Now, we must realise the dangers we face as a developing region because of plastic waste. Our situation is even worse than the developed countries that are already well-served with enough infrastructure to weather the storm in case of ecological hazards.

In fact, the disaster is already here and does not have to wait until the oceans’ fishes are outnumbered by plastics. We already face perennial floods that constantly sack our compatriots from their homes year in and year out, all over Africa. These impacts of these floods are worsened by the fact that the available water ways are blocked by plastic bags and containers. Lagos is a good example of this scenario.

The truth is that we, in Africa, are already like the fishes in the oceans; we are fed poison every day. Already, climate scientists are of the consensus that Africa is the worst hit by climate change and global warming. Sad truth: although we contributed the least to climate change, we are suffering its worst impact!

Therefore, we need help out here. And this brings me to my point today. Last week in Britain, there were many issues that were discussed, or rather promulgated by the UK, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, but two of them were more remarkably significant, to me. The first was the issue of gay rights and the other was on plastics recycling.

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May, famously ‘advised’ members of the Commonwealth to reconsider their unfavourable stance on gay rights. She was effectively telling a country like Nigeria, for instance, to resurrect the already dead and buried controversial “Gay Law”. From her body language she wanted us to change our national stand on the issue. She was earnestly hoping that we could convert to a “gay-friendly” nation over night.

The second issue was about the newly formed Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance. As the UK government wanted to take action to ban plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds, it urged us during the CHOGM to follow suit.

PM May said in London at the meeting, “Plastic waste is one of the greatest environmental challenges facing the world… Protecting the ocean environment is central to our agenda.”

She urged the 53 member nations of the Commonwealth to join the CCOA, for a cleaner world via cleaner oceans. She announced that New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Ghana have joined the UK and Vanuatu-led Alliance, an agreement between member states to join forces in the fight against plastic pollution. Britain, together with CCOA joint chair Vanuatu, called other countries to pledge action on plastics, a commitment to cutting down on single use plastic bags or other steps to eliminate avoidable plastic waste.

To drive this forward, the British PM also announced a 61.4 million pound sterling funding to boost global research on this and help countries across the Commonwealth stop plastic waste from entering the oceans in the first place.

My thoughts are, instead of wasting time discussing the issues of whether to revive the gay rights debate or not, Nigeria should conveniently ignore the issue entirely and start discussing the second issue about the Cleaner Oceans Alliance. I say this because I see media channels waste precious time hosting activists who throw invisible punches at the British Government for what they term as a “shameful gay agenda”, a throwback to the days of America’s Barack Obama.

The truth is that the more we concentrate on gay rights, the more we miss a golden opportunity to explore the real and all-important issue of environmental justice. If you asked me, our priority should be to maintain a leadership role in CCOA because ours is a country with a large swath of land literally kissing the Atlantic Ocean. We must ensure therefore that no disease and disaster come upon our citizens through this consanguinity. It is unfortunate that we would allow other “small” regional countries to take the initiative ahead of us.

Unless Britain clearly tells us that the criterion to benefit from the Clean Oceans research fund and support is supporting gay rights, we must have our eyes set on making a state like Lagos the centre of the CCOA initiative in the sub region. As a mega city, Lagos has what it takes to be the poster boy for a “Recycle plastic, save the ocean” campaign.

Even if Britain tells us otherwise, we can always let our former coloniser understand that we are an independent nation with its own sovereign status and diplomatic agenda. No nation on earth can be forced to swallow a potion that would be detrimental to its survival. Rwanda kissed French good bye after it was convinced France was a cold comfort during its dark days of genocide. Likewise, we have the right to reject gay rights and embrace environmental sustainability.




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