Waste from coronavirus Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has become a new form of pollution as single-use plastic PPE floods drainages and oceans.
In Nigeria, millions of used elastic gloves and masks are discarded daily. Hand sanitiser bottles and other waste are already found on seabeds and washed up on beaches, joining the day-to-day litter in ocean ecosystems.
Conservationists warn and urge governments to facilitate green recovery and its sustainability.
Despite the temporary decline in carbon emissions as lockdowns have meant fewer people travelling and less industrial activity, there are concerns the pandemic will divert governments’ attention away from green issues.
The 26th United Nations climate change conference earlier planned to hold in November has been postponed. In some Nigerian cities, recycling has been put on hold and COVID-19 movement restriction has driven more people online, resulting in more waste from packaged deliveries.
Unless proactive steps are taken, there will be an upsurge in polluting activity as construction and manufacturing are used to drive recovery from the global downturn the virus has created.
The promotion of use of non-pharmaceuticals to slow the spread of COVID-19 has caused an extraordinary increase in the production of disposable masks. The UN trade body, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), estimates that global sales will hit $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019.
Nigeria released about N6.5 billion to the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) as an intervention to assist in the fight against the spread of the COVID-19, while some state governments, including Lagos, received N10 billion financial support from the Federal Government. A fraction of the fund has been devoted to the procurement of PPE.
Recent media reports, showing videos and photos of divers picking up masks and gloves in drainage channel and oceans, were wake-up calls for many, refocusing minds on the plastic pollution issue and a reminder that politicians, leaders and individuals need to address the problem of plastic pollution.
If historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 per cent of used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas and beaches.
The per capita consumption of plastics in Nigeria has grown yearly over the past ten years from 4.0 kg in 2007 to 6.5 kg in 2017 and it is estimated will rise to 7.5 kg in 2020
Nigeria is one of the largest importers and consumers of plastics on the continent. Approximately, 14,200,000 tons of plastics in primary form were imported into Nigeria between 1996 and 2014. Approximately 3,420,000 tons total plastic were imported in the form of products and approximately 5,545,700 tons were imported as product components.
About 194,000 tons of plastic toys were imported over a six-year period. The total amount of plastics imported in primary form and as products equals 17,620,000 tons. The total volume of imported plastic, newly produced plastic and plastic components going into the technosphere was 23,400,000 tons.
The huge amount of plastic and other polymers entering the technosphere in Nigeria has grave implications for marine litter, pollution, waste management and resource recovery.
To tackle the issue, the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) made it mandatory for industries and production outlets in the country to comply fully with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Programme.
But experts further said solutions to plastic crisis needed focus on preventing more plastic from entering the market and on implementing and supporting zero waste communities and cities, alternative delivery systems and reusable products.
The Director-General, Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF), Dr. Muhtari Aminu-Kano told The Guardian that COVID-19 brought a new challenge in plastic pollution.
He urged the government to support the use of local fabrics as face masks to boost the indigenous economy and create employment.
Okereke explained that many environmental issues were connected, compounded and additive in nature. He said that if plastic wastes were not properly disposed of and eventually burnt, it would cause air pollution and impact the respiratory organs and expose individuals to health issues.
He advised the Federal Government to implement the new solid waste management policy. “Having a policy is good, but implementing it is always the problem. Even now, the government has failed to educate and sensitise the people on the waste policy, they have designed.”
The convener of Plastic SOS Project, Abisola Biya, observed that Nigeria was generating waste at an alarming rate without proper recycling or disposal.
“I fear there’s a catastrophe waiting to happen if we don’t take action now, no matter how minute. It all starts from baby steps before taking giant strides which will ultimately need the backing of the government to combat plastic pollution,” she said.
UNEP has warned that if the increase in medical waste, much of it made from environmentally harmful single-use plastics, is not managed soundly, it could lead to uncontrolled dumping.
The likely consequences, says UNEP, include public health risks from infected used masks, and the open burning or uncontrolled incineration of masks, leading to the release of toxins in the environment and secondary transmission of diseases to humans.
Because of fears of these potential secondary impacts on health and the environment, UNEP has urged governments to treat the management of waste, including medical and hazardous waste, as an essential public service.
“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to the planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” says Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade.
“The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things worse.”
The study, “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution”, which was endorsed by Inger Andersen, head of the UN environment agency UNEP, forecasts that, if no action is taken, the number of plastics dumped into the ocean will triple by 2040, from 11 to 29 million tonnes per year.
In its July analysis of plastics, sustainability and development, UNCTAD came to the conclusion that global trade policies also had an important role to play in reducing pollution.
Many countries have introduced regulations concerning plastics over the last decade, an indicator of growing attention to the issue, but UNCTAD analysis says for trade policies to be truly effective, coordinated, global rules are needed.