Last Saturday, June 5, was WED, World Environment Day. The United Nations observes designated days, weeks, years, and decades, each with a theme, or topic, to call attention to, or create awareness around issues. The WED is one of the observances held by the United nations to draw attention to the state of our environment and how to continue to manage it in a way that it can continue to support life forms.
Here in Nigeria, there is every cause for concern about the state of our environment. Unlike what obtained when Nigeria functioned well as it was in the 60s, 70s, and perhaps till the mid-80s when the rot took a life of its own, the current status of the environment should worry any Nigerian that moves round with his/her two eyes open.
Even in the early 80s, the situation of the environment was bothersome enough to make the presidential candidate of the defunct Nigeria Advance Party, NAP, the redoubtable Dr. Tunji Braithwaite promise a war on rats and cockroaches if elected. A lot of people laughed at Dr. Braithwaite then, but looking back, the man saw the future of our environment.
A major problem confronting our living space in Nigeria today is coming from what most of us use — bags made from nylon, which scientists tell us is a tough, lightweight, elastic synthetic polymer that can be produced as filaments, sheets, or moulded objects. Also, a majority of the fluids we take in come in bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET bottles. Before this becomes a Chemistry lesson on hydrocarbons, let’s just call these materials plastic, or poly products.
The scary part of these is that plastic does not decompose the way a banana peel does. Plastic waste is one type of waste that takes a very long time to decompose. Some scientific estimates indicate that plastic items take up to 1,000 years to decompose, while the regular poly bag or nylon bag may take between10 to 20 years to decompose; plastic bottles may take as long as 450 years. Other sources estimate it can take 500-1,000 years for plastic to decompose in a garbage dump. In simpler terms, poly products are non-biodegradable.
Our soft drinks, bottled water, pure water, nylon and poly bag industries are churning out millions of these products daily, and after we use them, we simply throw away. It is commonplace to see a PET bottle fly out the window of a moving bus, while users of “pure water”simply squeeze the nylon container into a ball and throw away. There is almost no effort made to dispose properly, and relative to the amount dumped irresponsibly into the environment, very little is being recycled.
Our beaches, canals and inland waterways are the evidence; their shores and embankments are lined with floating PET bottles and other poly products. Also, after a downpour, our roads get strewn with PET bottles, pure water nylons, and poly bags.
Drains hardly flow in our towns and cities. They are mostly blocked with debris, mostly of the non-biodegradable nature described above. Waste water thus remains stagnant in the gutters. Stagnant waters breed mosquitoes. Mosquitoes bite humans, and in the process, deposit malaria germs, which incubate, and sends the victim into the hospital, spending hard-earned resources on therapies.
Greater damage is even being done as these improperly disposed poly products simply begin to sink into the ground. Underground water comes to the surface by capillary action, and when nylon bags and pure water bags go into the ground, they block the capillary activity. That has serious implications for the water cycle, and other nutrient cycles. A neighbour was digging a fresh septic tank pit, and the digging was being made difficult by poly bags that had gone as deep as four feet down!
Closely related to the poly products problem is that of waste from electronic gadgets such as television sets, radio sets, computers, refridgerators, microwave ovens, etc. They are commonly called e-waste. Many of these gadgets were made with elements or derivatives of elements that are dangerous to human life and the environment, and in other countries, e-waste is specially disposed, like medical waste. Here, we just dump them where we like. Some just burn them, and noxious fumes, very harmful to the system are released in the process. We are destroying tomorrow with our carelessness today.
Before this becomes a ramble, one wonders what those in charge of the environment are doing, besides the usual speeches and other rhetoric. This country has a minister in charge of the environment, and a parastatal with the mandate to protect the environment as well. Many, if not all states have environmental protection agencies. What do the staff of these ministries and agencies do?
It does not even seem that the environment gets the proper attention it deserves after a minister or commissioner is appointed to that portfolio at the federal and state levels. But read this; the environment in Nigeria is under severe threat, and if the ongoing deleterious use is not halted, worse things, in concert with our energy deficit, climate change, mindless exploitation of the forests and other negative trends will, of their own, begin to make life “nasty, brutish and short” here. Time for action is now!