When Leo Baekeland invented plastic in 1907, little did he know that his finest and noble discovery would later be abused by mankind and become a scourge to the environment. So important was this invention that it quickly dominated in the early 20th century. To get a sense of the impact of the invention of plastic one would have to take a look into current statistics on its usage.
By Joseph Ndondo
To date one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute and 500 billion disposable plastic bags are used worldwide every year. This domination is incredible; however, it has come with some negative implications in particular with regards to the environmental.
Plastic is largely a concern because of its slow decomposition rate. Part of this major concern was somehow addressed with efforts in plastic recycling. China in particular had an overdrive in plastic recycling in the 1980s. It used recycled plastic to fuel its growing manufacturing industry and would even buy plastic waste from other countries.
Sooner, China had transformed itself into a global dumpsite of trash. America, Europe and Japan resorted to dumping their waste in China than to deal with it internally as it was far cheaper and economical.
Although recycling was a relief to the plastic waste puzzle, it soon proved not to be in itself an “angelical solution” to the debacle as the ever rising plastic pile-ups started to trigger incineration of recyclable plastic. Burning or incineration of plastic led to a surge in emissions of organic pollutants, heavy metals, and greenhouse gases raising serious climate concerns.
The whole waste challenge is not only about plastic. E-waste is also proving to become a huge problem for the global society. E-waste refers to remains of technological materials once used in homes such as laptops, phones and other electrical gadgets.
This upsurge in e-waste is largely attributed to the 4th Industrial revolution which includes technological advancement of the 21st century. Most of the waste is produced in European countries and America, but more end up elsewhere, especially in Africa. A top-20 rank of countries used as dumping grounds will certainly feature at least nine African countries.
As if the slave trade and colonisation was not hell enough for Africa, the continent has for years continued to become a dumping bin for American and European waste. This waste in most cases is not just ordinary waste, but evidence has shown it to be harmful toxic waste.
In 1987, an Italian ship dumped a load of waste in Nigeria’s Koko beach. It was not long after the dumping before residents developed chemical burns, vomited while some were paralysed. How evil!
In 2006, a Dutch ship dumped its load of waste in the capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan. This waste affected over 100 000 Ivorians as the waste contained toxins of hydrogen sulfide and fuel not to mention the smell from that waste which was reported to have been worse than a decaying carcass, with witnesses characterizing the foul smell as a hybrid of rotten eggs and blocked sewage drains. How evil!
My country Zimbabwe has suffered too due to this waste scourge. In the 80s, a few years after gaining independence from Rhodesian rule, a load of toxic waste was dumped in Zimbabwe, apparently disguised as commercial cleaning fluid.
The source of waste was traced back to a New York Naval base and ironically this dumping trick implicated the US Agency for Development. The irony of it is based on the fact that the USAid agency purports to assist Africa through aid money and developmental assistance. If one is sincere in helping Africa, would they purposefully dump a load of toxic waste on people in need? Hypocrites, How evil! Nations like the US and countries in the EU often have little understanding of or accountability for the environmental and human health implications of these exports.
The blame is not entirely heaped on the waste exporters, but is equally pointed to Africa as well, especially when it comes to its poor governance system and corruption levels. Often, ships and containers are cleared at Africa’s ports hassle-free, buy just paying a few bucks to the poorly paid government officials.
In February 2017 Ghana has was a wilful dumping ground of over 17000 tonnes of e-waste from the United Kingdom. Mozambique’s Maputo, is home to one of the largest biggest dump sites in the whole world, the Hulene dumpsite.
A poor country like Mozambique with much of its population wallowing in poverty can afford to produce 1100 metric tonnes of waste a day to built over 15 metres of a pile of rubbish not food. If only rubbish was infrastructure.
This waste dump collapsed in 2017 killing 17 people. Another rubbish dump which collapsed in Ethiopia had a much higher death toll, claiming 115 lives in March 2017.
It is really sad that people can get killed by other people’s waste. More worrysome is that women and children are mostly affected in these tragedies.
There, however, seems to be a glimmer of hope for the future of the plastic economy. China, the second biggest economy in the world recently banned imports of recyclable plastic waste. This came as a shocker considering that since the 80s, the Asian giant had been buying off over 50% of the global plastic waste.
This ban will surely be a tipping point and will disrupt the whole plastic economy. Signs and effects of this disruption are starting to be felt. The UK government for instance, announced that it will ban single-use plastic starting as early as 2019. Single-use plastic includes forms such as plastic straws, cotton swabs, drink stirrers and disposable drink cups.
This type of plastic has been the major source of marine pollution. Every year, up to 13 million tonnes of plastic leak into our oceans, where it smoothers coral reefs and threatens vulnerable marine wildlife. With a larger half life, plastic can persist for up to 1 000 years before it fully disintegrates. Sometimes this non-digestible plastic is eaten by some aquatic organisms while some get entangled by the plastic.
The United Nations World Environment Day is a day for encouraging worldwide awareness and action for the environment. Over the years, it has grown to be one of the largest global platforms for public outreach celebrated by over a million of people.
The theme for the World Environment Day 2018 is Beat Plastic Pollution, and calls to action for all of us to come together to combat one of the great environmental challenges of our time.
It calls on us to act on how we can make changes in our everyday lives to reduce the heavy burden of plastic pollution on our natural places, our wildlife and our own health. Africa has to declare a war on plastic pollution and continent can only win this war if it boldly refuses to continue becoming a “bin” of global waste.
At individual level citizens can also contribute to the fight against pollution for example simple acts like bringing own shopping bags to the supermarket, and refusing plastic cutlery would be a great way to disrupt the plastic economy.