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Nigeria joins global efforts to curb plastic waste

March 13, 2024

The number of countries around the world banning plastic bags is growing, but enforcement is still an issue, especially in regions like Africa.

People sort through mountains of largely plastic waste in a city dump
Despite extreme plastic pollution in Lagos, some don't support a single-use plastics banImage: Sunday Alamba/AP/picture alliance

In January, Nigeria became the latest African country to fight a mounting waste crisis by banning single-use plastics

Nigeria's Lagos State government said it would outlaw styrofoam packaging and gradually phase out single-use plastics. 

Within the African continent, at least 34 countries have banned various forms of single-use plastics and packaging — 99% of which are made from the fossil fuels that drive climate change.

Rwanda pioneered these efforts in 2008 with a ban on one-way plastic bags and bottles, and the clean streets of the capital Kigali are the barometer of success across the region.

Meanwhile in the US, plastic prohibition is having an impact, with bans in five US states and cities alone having cut bag use by around 6 billion bags per year.

And the European Union has banned a multitude of single-use plastics such as straws and take-away containers. 

But some experts caution that piecemeal bans should only be part of a broader shift away from "throwaway culture" and that toxic plastic need to "phased-down" to stop — as widely predicted — plastic production tripling by 2050. 

Lagos, Nigeria bans single-use plastics

Why are governments resorting to plastic bans?

Plastic waste management in Nigeria is almost non-existent, noted Temitope O. Sogbanmu, senior lecturer in ecotoxicology and conservation at the University of Lagos.

She described single-used plastics that clog metropolitan streets and sewers and cause flooding, as a "menace" that also finds its way to coastal communities and fouls marine habitats.

Styrofoam used to package food is among the worst culprits. A lack of collection and recycling infrastructure in Lagos meant a ban was a last viable option to control the waste problem.

Hellen Kahaso Dena of the Pan-African Plastics Project at Greenpeace Africa, who campaigns about the health and environmental impacts of plastic pollution on marginalized communities, called the ban "a step in the right direction." 

Three women sort through millions of plastic bottles, appearing as if in an ocean of plastic
The struggle to collect and recycle plastic waste, including here in Bangladesh, has forced countries to enact bansImage: Joy Saha/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Consultation key to plastic prohibition   

But despite support among environmental advocates, the new styrofoam ban in the Nigerian capital has drawn its fair share of criticism.

Food vendors in Lagos' markets say they are losing business and that the state should provide alternatives. 

Lecturer Sogbanmu agrees that biodegradable alternatives "need to be supported or subsidized by the government" to make them affordable and widely available. 

She says implementation of any plastic ban requires both top-down legislative action and enforcement, and strong bottom-up consultation and education — especially among the large youth population in Nigeria.

In the case of Rwanda, "citizen engagement" was key in the effort to "maintain cleanliness, reduce pollution and deliver plastic alternatives to make the vision a reality," said the United Nations Development Program in November. The Rwandan government has meanwhile worked with its Norwegian counterparts to implement a Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution by 2040, showing a long-term commitment to plastic eradication.

Senegal celebrates anti-plastic campaigner

Weyinmi Okotie, the clean energy campaigner for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and Break Free From Plastics Africa, has observed that styrofoam availability in Lagos has dropped significantly since the ban was put in place — due, he believes, to a fear of arrest.

But does this threat always work?

Why some bans fail

One of the many plastic bag bans implemented in Africa was legislated in Kenya in 2017. However, seven years later they are ever-present in markets across the country.

According to Dorothy Otieno, programs officer at Kenya's Centre for Environmental Justice and Development, the local plastics industry, which opposed the ban, simply moved operations across the border to Uganda, where there is no ban.

Maintaining "connections" within Kenya, producers are able to reintroduce plastic bags into markets, with a porous border making illegal trade easier.

Despite both sellers and buyers of plastic bags threatened with imprisonment and a 4 million Kenyan shilling (US$28,900, €26,300) fine, Otieno said the cheap cost still attracts lower income consumers who simply cannot afford more expensive alternatives. 

Failure to get communities to adopt plastic bans also illustrates the need to stagger the prohibition of common, cheap packaging, said Temitope O. Sogbanmu.

She notes that 60 million small-serving plastic sachets of water are consumed and discarded in Nigeria each day, for instance, but that a ban would fail unless a drinking water solution was first implemented.

So, too, in India, where a 2022 ban on single-use plastics failed initially due in part to a lack of affordable alternatives, as well as the influence of thecountry's powerful plastics industry, say campaigners.

Cows feed on discarded plastics in the streets of Kolkata, India
Single-use plastics continue to litter the streets of Kolkata, despite a blanket, India-wide banImage: Satyajit Shaw/DW

Global plastics ban the ultimate solution

Cooperation and integration of plastic bans across Africa is, as in the EU where a single-use plastics ban applies to all member states, a potential means to make national bans more effective.

But the ultimate solution is a global plastics ban, says Sogbanmu.

Such a plastics accord is currently being negotiated, and if adopted, could slash global plastic pollution 80% by 2040

Edited by: Tamsin Walker, Sarah Steffen

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.