Two weeks into January 2024, Nigerian authorities took steps to curb environmental degradation caused by plastic pollution in the country.
The Federal Ministry of Environment was the first to issue a directive. It banned single-use plastics in its own departments and agencies. The Lagos State government followed a few days later with a ban on styrofoam containers (popularly used for food packaging) and gave businesses three weeks to mop up styrofoam in circulation.
The Abia State government in the south-east followed with its own ban on single-use plastics, announced on 27 January.
As an environmental toxicologist, I argue that there is enough research evidence showing the adverse effects of plastic waste on the environment – as well as potential harm to people – to support the ban. As a member of the Metrics Task Force of the Nigeria National Plastic Action Plan, among others, I have been part of several stakeholder engagements since 2022 across the plastic waste value chain, contributing to the evidence on the severity of the plastic waste menace in Nigeria.
To make it work this time, Nigeria could learn from other countries like Rwanda that have issued similar bans. It is also important to consider affordable alternatives and the human and financial resources that are needed to enforce the ban.
Why banning single-use plastics is necessary
Nigeria has been rather slow to tackle plastic pollution. This is despite research documenting the extent of plastic waste in the environment, which has caused pollution of rivers and water bodies and reduced fish populations.
We conducted a review of about 40 studies, mostly in south-western Nigeria, that documented the sources and extensive distribution of plastic waste.
In more recent research we found microplastics in Osun River, its sediments and fish. These tiny pieces of plastic are not degradable and can leach into living organisms when ingested, causing adverse effects.
A range of studies have documented various plastic waste types, forms, sizes and polymer compositions, especially highly hazardous ones. Hazardous plastic polymers have been found in potable water (bottled water and sachet water) and food such as (fish and snails). They have also been found in surface waters, sediments and air.
There is also evidence of a large quantity of uncollected plastic litter across major metropolises like Lagos and Abuja.
And there’s evidence that single-use plastics make up most of the plastic waste across the country. An example is water sachets – about 60 million of these are used daily in Nigeria.
Lessons from other countries
Nigeria can learn from the mistakes and successes of other countries that have banned single-use plastics.
It is estimated that over 100 countries globally have partially or fully banned single-use plastics. African and Asian countries top the list.
Rwanda is one African country that has succeeded. The government used a top-down approach involving enforcement with stringent penalties and a bottom-up approach involving advocacy campaigns at the grassroots.
In Nigeria, affordable alternatives to single-use plastics should be made available in critical sectors such as pharmaceuticals, fast moving consumer goods, food manufacturing and processing.
For sustainable enforcement in Nigeria, the ban should be done sequentially. Non-essential uses, such as fizzy drinks and beverages packaging, should be targeted first.
This should be done while providing affordable alternatives and encouraging the production and use of sustainable materials. For example, potable water needs to be provided by the government at accessible and affordable prices as an alternative to sachet and plastic bottled water.
Strategic stakeholder engagement for monitoring, advocacy and buy-in is also key. It is important to carry along the private and informal sectors which drive the single-use plastics value chain.
Incentives to promote the adherence to this ban are important. The Federal Ministry of Environment is already leading this by enforcing the ban across its departments and agencies first.
The use of mainstream and social media platforms is important. And the judiciary and legal institutions must be engaged to support the enforcement, as was done in Kenya.
Funds must be invested in sustainable local alternatives to single-use plastics. The aim would be to provide livelihoods.
Universities, polytechnics, and government research institutions such as the Federal Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation parastatals should be funded to research and pilot innovative and affordable alternatives to single-use plastics.
Monitoring must be harmonised across states and national institutions to track progress. Open access digital platforms such as the Environmental Evidence Portal for Nigeria can be partnered by the government to make available contextual “Nigerian” evidence in non-technical formats for education and advocacy.
Temitope O. Sogbanmu, Senior Lecturer, Ecotoxicology and Conservation Unit, Department of Zoology, Faculty of Science, University of Lagos