From trash-strewn sidewalks to street vendors packing their meals in polystyrene containers, plastic waste poses a constant threat to the urban landscape of Lagos, Nigeria’s economic capital and the continent’s most populous city.
This picture could soon change if the local government of Lagos State manages to implement its recent ambitious ban on the use of polystyrene and single-use plastics.
The announcement of the ban on polystyrene boxes and single-use plastics, “with immediate effect”, by Tokunbo Wahab, the state commissioner for environment, surprised many Lagosians, especially those who earn their life in the informal sector.
“Polystyrene boxes are cheaper than reusable plastic ones,” explains Cecilia Mathew, 20, who sells dishes made from rice, meat and garri – or cassava flour – on the streets of the working-class neighborhood of Obalende in Lagos.
“It doesn’t make sense to put food in a polythene bag (plastic bag),” said another food vendor, Funmilayo Oresanya, 43.
For environmentalists, Lagos State’s move was welcome as it not only reduced waste but also reduced carbon emissions.
But other critics have questioned the feasibility of an immediate ban on these commonly used products, particularly by businesses.
“It’s too sudden,” said Kehinde Bakare, 61, a polystyrene box seller. “There are people using it as a means of livelihood, so what are they going to do? What about the production people? » she said, asking that they be offered “substitutes”.
Nigerian fast food chain Food Concepts, known for its popular restaurants Chicken Republic, PieXpress and The Chopbox, “applauded” the move, saying in a statement that it was “beginning its transition” to end polystyrene boxes and encouraged its “future” customers. with their own containers.
Folawemi Umunna, co-founder of the NGO Initiative for Climate and Ecological Protection, said the decision to eliminate non-biodegradable materials was positive if Lagos State managed its action plan properly.
On his X account, Wahab posted a video on Tuesday showing health workers carrying out checks in the city.
In 2019, Nigerian MPs passed a law banning plastic bags, but it hit an impasse because it did not complete its legislative process. Other African countries have also attempted to ban plastic bags, with mixed success.
But in Lagos, a megacity of more than 20 million inhabitants, the issue of waste management is crucial because waste regularly blocks sewers and evacuation routes, particularly during the rainy season, causing floods and promoting proliferation of mosquitoes, vectors of malaria, in a stagnant area. water.
Nigeria is Africa’s second largest plastic importer, according to the German Heinrich-Boell Foundation, accounting for 17 percent of the continent’s total plastic consumption, and more than 130,000 tonnes of plastic ends up in Nigerian waters each year.
If nothing changes, imports and consumption of plastics will exceed 40 million tonnes by 2030, it warns in a 2020 report.
Plastic microparticles are ingested by animals and can be found in humans, said Temitope Olawunmi Sogbanmu, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Lagos, emphasizing the “non-degradable” nature of these materials.
But if the ban on polystyrene and single-use plastic is “good news” for the climate and sustainability, Sogbanmu still says she is worried about the “socio-economic consequences” of this measure on “those whose livelihoods depend of this value chain”.
The climate benefits could be offset by the impact on sellers of food and water in plastic bags as well as waste collectors who are part of the informal economy in a country that is already going through an economic crisis with a tripling of fuel prices since the arrival of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. came to power in May.
The annual inflation rate stood at almost 29 percent in December.
“There will be more poor people and it will become even more difficult for people to access basic necessities,” said Sogbanmu, who recommends implementing “strategic interventions,” especially for the poor.
Environmental activist Oluwaseyi Moejho said the Lagos government had taken a bold step, but agreed that state officials needed to ask people what they wanted and how they could support them.
“Once upon a time there was a plastic-free Nigeria, and we survived it. It’s entirely possible,” she said. “I understand the convenience of plastic, it’s quite blinding, but convenience at the cost of our lives and our future costs too much.”