“Bring your plates” was Chicken Republic’s cheeky response to Lagos state’s sudden ban on styrofoam and single-use plastics. The Nigerian fast-food franchise, known for its signature styrofoam packaging, welcomed the new development announced by the Commissioner for the Environment and Water Resources, Tokunbo Wahab. The ban is a reaction to the menace that single-use plastics, especially non-biodegradable styrofoam, are causing on the environment. Abia State, in a statement also signed by the State’s Commissioner for Environment, Philemon Ogbonna, has also banned the use of styrofoam in the state.
This is a step in the right direction to combat environmental pollution. It also highlights the growing need for businesses to adapt to a more sustainable future. Yet, the sudden ban(s) also raises various issues, such as the impact on businesses and consumers, and the effectiveness of enforcement.
The styrofoam menace
Styrofoam and other single-use plastics are a major source of plastic pollution, which harms wildlife, ecosystems, and human health. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year, where they break down into microplastics that can enter the food chain and contaminate water sources. Plastic waste also contributes to climate change, as it releases greenhouse gases when it degrades or is burned.
Unfortunately, Nigeria is Africa’s second-largest importer of plastics, representing 17 percent of the total plastic consumption on the continent. In Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital and the continent’s most populous city, this has posed a constant menace in the urban landscape. Plastic and styrofoam waste has been linked to flooding, reduced soil fertility, and increased disease transmission. Meanwhile, the costs of the daily cleanup of these products from roads and drainage channels run into tens of millions of naira. The Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) spends about N6 billion ($14.6 million) annually on waste management but only recovers about 40 percent of its expenses.
Across the world, countries like Rwanda, Kenya, France, and Canada have taken action against the use of styrofoam and single-use plastics by implementing bans or restrictions on these products. These measures have reduced plastic consumption and waste and encouraged the use of reusable or biodegradable alternatives. It has also led to innovative alternatives.
The other side of the drainage
However, enforcing such a policy is never an easy transition. In 2008, Rwanda became the first African country to place a similar ban. The ban prohibited the manufacturing, importation, use, and sale of non-biodegradable plastic bags made from polythene. They passed a law to make it official.
However, Rwanda recognized that tackling plastic pollution required more than just enacting legislation. The government launched extensive awareness campaigns to educate and engage citizens in the fight against plastic waste. By emphasizing the detrimental effects of plastic pollution on the environment, wildlife, and public health, Rwanda successfully fostered a sense of responsibility and ownership among its people. By 2019, the legislation extended the ban to all single-use plastic products.
In Lagos, the ban was initially to take effect the same day it was announced. In Abia state, there were reports that defaulters were arrested and sanctioned in the state’s capital, Umuahia on the same day it was announced, during the state’s monthly Clean Up exercise. An abrupt ban affects over 10,000 SMEs and over 100,000 jobs in the plastic industry. According to the U.S.-Nigeria Trade Council, this could place a huge financial burden, especially on businesses that had stocked up products these products. Phasing out the use of styrofoam and single-use plastics could help avoid this. Moreover, for many Nigerians, transitioning to alternatives may be harder than expected. Single-use plastics and styrofoam are cheaper than other materials. According to a market report, the average price of plastic products in Nigeria is 30% lower than that of paper or metal products. Also, many Nigerian meals, like the notoriously oily Ewa agoyin, a popular Nigerian dish made of mashed beans and spicy pepper sauce, pose a unique challenge for alternative packaging. Paper, for instance, struggles to contain the oil, potentially affecting both the food’s quality and the consumer’s experience.
Nigerians also have an infamous reputation for struggling with adapting new laws. According to a review of Nigeria’s 2021 Climate Change Act, Nigeria faces several challenges in implementing and enforcing its climate policies. Compared to previous bans like that of commercial motorcycles in 2020, styrofoams and plastics are more prone to smuggling. This presents an additional hurdle. Addressing this will require innovative strategies like community engagement, and stricter monitoring.
Regardless of how this goes, the bottom line is that the environment needs to be protected from the harmful effects of plastic pollution. Nigeria is committed to the fight against climate change. In reaction to the Lagos ban, the Federal Government said the ban on some plastic materials has become inevitable. Nigerians should be prepared for wholistic circular management of our waste. While the implementation approach could have been more thought out, the necessity and adaptation of this policy cannot be overstated.