Thursday, July 14, 2011

Polythene – a menace to our society

It’s no news that poly bag (as it is commonly called) is our means of packaging items be it water, food, clothing, stationery, money (from banks), drugs and trash. It is cheap ranging from N5 to N50 depending on the size. It is strong enough to be held by the hand if the item doesn’t weigh it down too much. It protects items from the rain as it is waterproof and is usually used to shield one from the rain. Our use of this product is so indiscriminate that everywhere you turn, you will find one of this product lying carelessly around. From using it in homes to make moin-moin (we changed from using leaves) to distributing it in weddings, etc. It is used to cover slippers for sale in aboki’s store, used to hang up clothes in open shops to prevent dust from settling on the clothes. Some high class shops (phone sellers, textile dealers, electronics distributors) make special custom-made poly bags with information about their addresses and telephone numbers on them.

So Polythene has many advantages but what are the disadvantages? Why would Italy ban it in January 2011? If Italy uses 20billion plastic bags per year (, I would say Nigeria uses roughly about 70billion poly bags per year but I know this figure is much higher. Or why are the developed nations practicing paper-based packaging rather than polythene based? What informs these decisions? Many of these countries design long-term plans and they work with them. This is also true for their approach to conserving the environment for future generations. Clearly researches are on-going in that regard. In Nigeria (and Africa generally), we seem to care less for future consequences and just live “one day at a time” hoping everything will turn out just fine.
Polythene means poly – ethene where poly stands for “many” (we talk about many molecules of the substance by that). Ethene is a chemical compound derived from organic sources. It is mostly gotten from the petrochemical industry which used crude oil fractions to make several day-to-day products such as tyres, plastics, CDs/DVDs and many other items. Polythene is the most common of all the other compounds used in making plastic bags. 
Have you ever tried burning any of these products? You will find out they do not burn down completely as you observe if you burn paper or wood. There will remain a shrunk residue. This is also the case with poly bags. These residues do not degrade by the actions of natural organisms which eat up items like food, wood and paper. Non-biodegradable means that a product can exist without decomposing for about 50years or more. So you can picture that the polythene products which were used about 1961 will just be getting decomposed about now!!!! Nowadays, the increase in technology advancement has made for more products and subsequently increasing our use of polythene products rather exponentially. We can thus imagine the amount of waste we lay up for the future.
I am not surprised by the recent flooding in Lagos which submerged cars, SUVs and took over many houses. The resultant epidemic which might break out is not immediately evident. Apart from the fact that the drainage systems are not adequate, the few available ones are not flowing as they ought due to the menace of polythene. Also many buildings are situated on drainage pathways and so the water just doesn’t have a clearly defined path to follow. Polythene shields water and if available in a large mass, can cause water to be help up behind it and thereby resulting in a flood. Many Lagosians (and indeed Nigerians) still see the drain as a means of emptying their wastes. Go to the shops and markets early in the mornings or at close of business and you will see the attendants sweeping rubbish straight into the nearby gutter. Many empty all manner of waste items into the drains whenever it rains. Items of glass, cartons, metals, plastic, polythene (most especially pure water sachet) go into the rapids created by the rainwater in those drain routes. Where do they end up? They never bother to ask but only discover later that flood is taking over the entire city. Yes climate change is affecting the whole globe but its effect on us is not as dangerous as we ourselves are making it. No matter how much the government construct and repair drainages, this problem (of flooding) will persist as long as the dumping of waste items into those routes continues.
Just like Italy and other countries, we need a legislation to effectively control polythene products while we seek out other much more environmentally-friendly substitutes – paper bags, woven sack (of textile) bags, etc. Efforts of waste management agencies have to increase seriously and public awareness of damage to environment by indiscriminate dumping of waste by individuals should be made while fines (high amounts) should be placed on offenders. Hopefully this would get many to begin to see the “big picture” and feel more responsible to the earth around them. Manufacturing companies should be monitored on their use of polythene products (minimally) while recycling of waste products should be seriously considered.

The land (earth) is ours and we have a charge to take of it for our own benefit and that of our children and their own children.  We should also remember that the rain is a blessing every time as without it, we would all starve to death (how much artificial irrigation can we do). Our environment management practices over the years have brought us to face this present challenges. We must rise up to it or crumble in the face of it. Let’s prepare for even more rain next year!