What can Lagos State learn from options that have been applied elsewhere to curb plastic bag pollution?
- Use of plastic bags has increased massively over the past few decades.
- Widespread production and use of plastic bags cause environmental pollution, constitute danger to public health, and contribute to depletion of natural resources.
- Policy options that have been applied to reduce consumption of plastic bags in countries around the world include taxation, bans, buy-back policy and public education.
- A buy-back policy is recommended to reduce plastic bag pollution in Lagos State. However the right design is key to success.
With a focus on Lagos State, this paper examines the nature and extent of the pollution caused by the proliferation of plastic bags, explains why it is an important issue and discusses policy options that may be employed to address the problem.
Due to their inexpensive production cost, plastic bags are produced in large quantities, often designed to be single-use and given out in large numbers, almost for free. Globally, over one trillion plastic bags are produced and used annually, and less than 5% gets recycled. In Nigeria, an estimated 50 billion plastic bags are used annually.In the world today, plastics have become infinitely popular. They show up in different forms and in every sphere of modern-day life. However, the most ubiquitous form in which plastics are found is as plastic bags. Around the world, plastic bags are put to many uses, ranging from shopping to food packaging and waste disposal. In some local and peri-urban communities in Nigeria, they are even used for faeces disposal – a practice that has earned colloquial names like “shot put”, “flying toilet”, and “bullet”.
In this paper, the term “plastic bag” is used to describe plastic shopping bags with handles to carry items. They are carry bags, made of polymers in whole or in part, and provided by a retailer at point of sale for the carrying or transporting items.
When improperly disposed, as is often the case, plastic bags cause pollution. They litter terrestrial and aquatic environments, endanger wild life and domestic animals, clog drains and sewers, and cause flooding, particularly in urban settlements. In Lagos, pollution by plastic items is a major environmental and public health problem. Lagos State reportedly generates 9000 metric tons of waste daily, 86% of which is made of plastic bottles and bags. A walk along many streets in Lagos after a downpour offers vivid evidence – often, wastes predominantly made of plastic debris accumulate in drainage, forcing water into buildings and creating pools on highways. Asides the traffic disruptions that result, there is also damage to public and private property.
Attempts have been made by the Lagos State Government to address the problem. In 2012, the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) introduced a plastic bag buy-back program to encourage sale of used plastic bags to a state agency for recycling rather than discarding them as trash. In 2016, the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA) also launched the “Caring for our Waterways” campaign to educate Lagos residents on the dangers posed by plastic bags and other solid wastes to state waterways. That plastic bags continue to litter streets and clog drains show how little these initiatives have achieved.
Why it is important
The proliferation and poor disposal of plastic bags is a source of concern for at least three reasons:
- Pollutes the environment – the most obvious impact associated with the proliferation of plastic bags is the pollution resulting from improper disposal. Improperly disposed plastic bags end up in terrestrial environments such as on landfills, along the street, blown in the winds; and in aquatic bodies such as streams, lagoons, seas and eventually oceans. When they end up in terrestrial environments, they cause visual, soil or air pollution, altogether lowering scenic quality. When they end up in water systems, plastic bags cause death of aquatic animals through strangulation or choking, restriction of mobility and disruption to digestive processes for animals that inadvertently ingest tiny plastics particles as food. Acknowledging the magnitude of the problem, scientists project that by 2050, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic items than fish. Addressing pollution caused by plastic bags will improve the aesthetic quality and productive capacity the environments and will have positive effect on tourism and agricultural production.
- Constitute hazards to health – Generally, plastic bags do not biodegrade, rather they photo-degrade. That is, they cannot be broken down by the normal process of decay; instead they are dissolved by sunlight. Upon eventually decomposition, plastic bags are broken down into smaller toxic pieces called micro-plastics. When mistaken for food by marine and terrestrial animals, these micro-plastics enter the food chain and poison either the animal that ingested them in the first place or larger animals – including humans – that depend on these smaller organisms for food. Improperly disposed plastic bags clog drains and sewers and lead to formation of stagnant pools that fester water-borne disease and put public health at risk. As a result, preventive measures undertaken as a strategy for maintaining public health should include management of plastic waste disposal.
- Depletes natural resources – As with other plastic items, plastic bags are made from natural gas and petroleum, both of which are non-renewable resources. It is estimated that it takes 10,240 barrels of oil to produce 100 million plastic bags. This means that more than 102 million barrels of oil is needed to produce the 1 trillion plastic bags used annually all over the world. Another report estimates that 8-10% of the world’s total oil supply goes to making plastic items. Production of plastic bags evidently contributes to depletion of non-renewable natural resources and the world could save on oil demand by reducing plastic bag consumption.
To put those 102 million barrels of oil into perspective, if Nigeria was the only country producing plastic bags for the world, in 2015, 16% of its total oil output will have gone into making just plastic bags!
Policy options to address the problem
Below are policy options that have been used by countries to address plastic bag pollution:
- Imposing a ban on plastic bags: This option prohibits the manufacture of single-use plastic bags or their distribution by market outlets. The policy uses regulations to trigger a change in consumer preference for alternative packaging materials such as biodegradable paper bags or durable and recyclable fabric bags. Examples of countries that have employed this policy over the past decade include Rwanda, South Africa, Kenya, Brazil, Italy, China, Mexico, and Bangladesh. There have been varying degrees of efficacy. For instance, one report from China indicates that one year after a ban was imposed, plastic bag consumption dropped by 67% and saved the country 1.6 million tonnes of oil. In Rwanda, where the ban went as far as confiscating plastic bags at airports, drastic reduction in visual pollution caused by plastic bags is reported. However, the ban adversely affected Rwandans who depend on the plastic bags value chain for their livelihood – a situation which has precipitated a thriving black market and smuggling trade for the item.
- Introducing a tax on plastic bags: A plastic bag tax imposes on consumers a levy for every new unit of plastic bag consumed. It is considered a less draconian version of the plastic bag ban and it has gained popularity in countries like the UK, USA, Denmark, Belgium and Ireland. This policy uses a market-based (dis)incentive to encourage consumers to reuse previously held plastic bags rather than collect new ones and is expected to achieve reduction in plastic bag usage. In England, the number of single-use bags handed out in supermarkets dropped by 85% six months after a 5-pence tax was introduced. A major advantage of this option is that it generates revenue which can be used in creative ways, including financing waste infrastructure or environmental research, as is the case in Ireland.
- Buy-back: the buy-back system involves government engaging with manufacturers of packaging materials to achieve a gradual shift away from plastic bags to more desirable alternatives. Luxembourg’s plastic bag control model offers a good example. In this model, a government-contracted firm distributed, on the same day and at the same price, identical durable “eco-bags” to shops all over the country, for onward distribution to consumers. The consumer pays for the first unit of “eco-bag” collected, but when the bag wears out, it can be returned for recycling and free replacement. Shops provide collection centres where worn out bags are aggregated for recycling by the contractor. To motivate consumer cooperation, this model is combined with heavy taxation on plastic bags, proceeds from which contributes towards the cost of producing and recycling “eco-bags”. There is thus a clear channel through which bags are produced, distributed, used, collected and recycled.
The suggested alternatives include biodegradable paper bags that can be used for light packaging such as food wrapping, and durable fabric bags that can be used for heavy packaging many times before they wear out.
- Public education: This policy option assumes that an important part of any solution to plastic bag proliferation is to engender a change in consumer behaviour through continuous education and encouragement. It works by raising consumer awareness about the magnitude and importance of the pollution caused by plastic bags and encourages responsible choice. A successful campaign must be complemented with the provision of alternative and readily available options. Examples of such campaigns are the “Break the Bag Habit” in the UK and “Quit Plastic – save the Earth” in India. This option scores high on flexibility, but running continuous public enlightenment campaigns can be expensive and can lose audience attention when protracted. It also relies heavily on consumer sense of social and civic responsibility, and that is rarely guaranteed.
Recommendation for Lagos State
While the policy options discussed above have recorded successes of varying degrees in other countries, their suitability to local contexts in Lagos is uncertain. Each option, if independently applied, has one or more easily foreseeable defects. A ban on plastic bags, for instance, is a draconian measure that will be difficult to enforce if alternative packaging items are not available. Taxation can be effective only if imposed at the point of manufacturing and given the nationwide distribution of plastic bag manufacturers in Nigeria, a tax imposed by Lagos State will unfairly target manufacturers in the state, reducing their competitiveness. A properly designed buy-back option, can gradually replace plastic bags with more desirable alternatives. However, substantial capital and planning will be needed to produce the replacement bags, and to set up an organised collection and recycle system. Finally, public enlightenment applied alone, will achieve little if desirable alternatives with attributes similar to plastic bags are not made available.
To this end, this paper recommends a combined buy-back and taxation model to reduce plastic bag pollution in Lagos. If carefully planned and well designed, this model has the best chance of effectively curtailing proliferation and use of plastic bags.
A suggestion for a design is for the government to enlist the services of private firm(s), currently in the business of producing durable bags (an example of such companies is the Lagos-based Bagco Super Sack whose durable product “bagco bag” is a household name. But these bags are used less commonly compared to plastic bags because they are not as fashionable; besides, a lack of variety means that they can only be used for a limited number of purposes). These private firms will oversee the manufacture, sale, collection and recycling of desirable alternatives. Replacement bags should be just as easy to use as single-use plastic bags: they should be portable, presentable and should come in different sizes to suit different purposes. Upon completion, it is likely that these reusable bags will be more expensive for consumers to buy than single-use plastic bags, but durability and option of free replacement should offer an incentive for consumers to disregard the extra cost. To reduce anticipated price differential, a tax on plastic bags can be introduced and proceeds directed toward financing the buy-back scheme.
Sources and Endnotes
Ogwo P.A., Obasi L.O., Okoroigwe D.S. and Dibia N.O. (2013) From Plastic Bag Wastes To Wealth: A Case Study Of Abia State University, Nigeria. Journal of Environmental Management and Safety. 4 (1) pp. 35 – 39.
GGRC 2014. Disposable bag reduction. http://goinggreenrecyclingnigeria.org/disposable-bag-reduction/(Accessed 02.15.17)
http://oceai.blogspot.com.ng/2013/05/plastc-bag-pollution-persist.html (Accessed 02.15.17)
New Plastics Economy report offers blueprint to design a circular future for plastics. Ellen McAuther Foundation. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/news/new-plastics-economy-report-offers-blueprint-to-design-a-circular-future-for-plastics(Accessed 02.15.17)
Bashir N.H. (2013). Plastic problem in Africa. Japanese Journal of Veterinary Research 61. S1-S11
Food Democracy, 2008. Plastic Bags and Oil consumption https://fooddemocracy.wordpress.com/2008/07/16/plastic-bags-and-oil-consumption/
This figure was calculated using information on Nigeria’s crude oil production figures obtained from 2016 OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin.
http://1bagatatime.com/learn/plastic-bags-petroleum/ (Accessed 02.15.17)
 Position paper: Plastic bags. Pro Europe. February 2010
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