Plastic: Human’s Wonder but now our Nemesis

Adedoyin Shittu
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Plastic can be considered as the 10th wonder of the world; just closely behind chocolate and coffee in the 8th and 9th position respectively.

Humanity got her wish granted when we were able to turn fossil fuels into plastic. Plastic is cheap, sterile and convenient. Without plastic, much possession that we take for granted might be out of reach for most but the richest. Plastic made possible the development of computers, cell phones and most of the life changing advances in medicine. Replacing natural materials with plastic has made many of our possession cheaper, lighter, safer and stronger.

Plastic is made from long repeating chains of molecules broken down from fossil fuels to form polymer. It can be produced to meet its functionality. Polymer exist everywhere in nature (human hair, wood, silk, skin, DNA, to mention a few).

Plastic has long seized to be a wonder instead it has become our nemesis. Take a walk round the street of Lagos and see how plastic have become an environmental eyesore.

They are in every nook and cranny of major cities and towns; just everywhere. The most common are the plastic drinking bottles, bottle caps, plastic food containers, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, plastic bags, and foam take away containers.

Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles aside other soft and beverage drinks are purchased per minutes, while up to 5 trillion single use plastic bags are used worldwide every year.

The characteristic that makes plastic admirable has also made it to become an environmental nuisance. It takes over a thousand years for plastics to fully decompose.

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The life cycle of plastic

The birth of a plastic begins when crude oil and natural gas are extracted from the environment and chemically bonded together to make monomers. In turn the monomers were bonded into long polymer chain to make plastic in form of pellets. These pellets are melted in manufacturing plants and remoulded into the desired shapes.

The plastic with its content are then sold and the content consumed. Afterwards the empty container is unceremoniously discarded. Three things can happen to the discarded plastic container.

Case 1

The plastic container can be recycled to be re use again. Bottles are collected and are sent to the recycling plant. After proper sorting, bottles of the same type are squeezed and compressed into a block. The block is then shredded into tiny pieces, and then it is washed and melted to become raw materials that can be used again. Only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced worldwide has been recycled.

Case 2

Like hundreds of millions of plastics, the plastic could end up in landfill to take up space. The plastic is compressed under layers of junks dumped on the site. When it rains, the rain water absorbs the water soluble compounds in the plastic and some of these compounds such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalate are highly toxic. This creates a harmful liquid called “leachate”.

Report has shown that BPA interfere with human hormonal system which regulates body growth and development, metabolism, and reproductive functions. Also Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, the common phthalate used and commonly known as DEHP causes cancer.

Leachate moves into ground water, soil and stream poisoning the ecosystem and harming wild lives. It is estimated that 83% of tap water samples around the world contain plastic pollutants. Leachate has also pose threat to soil fertility and ultimately food supply.

Case 3

The plastic container could find its way into an ocean. It is estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year. That is so much plastic that it will outweigh all the fishes in the ocean by 2050 as predicted by the United Nation. A lot of it comes from world’s rivers which serve as a direct dumping ground of trash from cities.

After months of movement in the ocean, the plastic is slowly drawn to where trash accumulates in the ocean called “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Some animals mistake the brightly coloured and transparent plastics for food. Ingested plastic may block digestive tracts, damage stomach lining. Or lessen the need to feed in these animals, causing them to starve to death.

The toxin from the plastic present in the animals travel up the food chain when other animals feed on them. In 2015, 90% of sea bird has eaten plastic. In 2018, a dead whale washed up the sea shore of Spain; it has eaten 32 kilos of plastic bags

About 12% has been incinerated while the rest of about 79% has accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment.

Plastic waste whether in a river, an ocean or on land can persist in the environment. Most plastic never fully disappear (not biodegradable), it only get smaller and smaller into “microplastics”.

Microplastics have been found in honey, sea salt, beer, tap water and in the household dust around us. 8 out of 10 babies and nearly all adults have measurable amount of phthalate in their body. 93% of people have BPA in their urine.

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Regulations of plastic production

In developed countries, the government is taking some drastic measures to sanitise the environment. For instance, in Ireland, customers are forced to pay for plastic bags and the money raised is used to pay for fund devoted in combating plastic pollution and other environmental challenges.

Some African nations have also taken giant steps to address the issue of plastic pollution. For instance the government of Rwanda and Kenya have banned the manufacture, use, sale and importation of plastic bags. Paper bags have replaced plastic ones and citizens are encouraged to use reusable bags made from cotton.

However actions to curb the menace of plastic pollution is going at a snail pace in Nigeria. Despite Nigeria large and growing pollution in the continent, no serious action is in place to regulate the use and the production of plastic. Nigerians have been caught up with a throwaway culture that treats plastic as a disposable material rather than a valuable resource to be harnessed. Nigeria has also become over reliant on single use plastic without regard to it environmental consequence.

The increase pollution caused by plastic waste has resulted to blocked drainages, canals and gutters. This has led to flooding, and also further translated into communicable diseases because these plastics are used as breeding places for parasites.

The many Chinese and Indian firms that run plastic industries in Nigeria cares more for profit than environmental and human health. Their recycling plants produce food packaging containers from whatever plastics that come their way, with little attention to the type of plastic and the chemicals contained in them.

There should be stringent laws to ensure that they abide by the rules of use of safer chemicals and recycling. Fines should be paid if they fail to comply with such rules.

There should also be more rigid regulations and punishment for companies which produce/use plastic materials, particularly the single use ones. Just like what was adapted in Japan, South African and Germany; manufacturers of PET bottles should shoulder the responsibility of recycling used bottles.

Also promotion of recyclable materials that is environmental friendly such as bio-plastic should be produced to replace synthetic polymers.

Government should provide incentives to individuals and corporate firms that want to go into recycling of plastics in the society and more research should be financed by government on how plastic can be efficiently recycled in a larger quantity.

Plastic holds a valuable spot in our lives and plastic cannot be fully eradicated in our society but reducing the use of plastic most especially the singly used ones should be fully considered.

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