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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Indiscriminate face masks’ disposal: Can Nigeria beat plastic pollution?

To control the spread of the coronavirus in Nigeria, several implementation guidelines were put in place by the then Presidential Task Force on COVID-19.

Face masks pollution
Face masks and other materials pollution

The task force, now known as the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, listed measures such as the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), social distance, and restriction of mass gathering to limited number.

It also listed regular hand washing, mandatory use of face masks in public places, among others.

The production and usage of face masks increased as the COVID-19 pandemic persisted, with most of the masks containing plastics or other derivatives of plastics.

The popular brands are the N95, surgical masks and cloth masks, produced with absorbent fabrics, polyester, and common plastics like polypropylene and polystyrene.

However, increased use of non-biodegradable single-used face masks has not been without challenge, as the masks are indiscriminately disposed across the country.

The indiscriminate disposal could be attributed to limited or non-existence of adequate plastic waste management infrastructure.

This practice is a major challenge to the country’s efforts towards beating plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is caused by the accumulation of plastic wastes in the environment.

It can be categorised as primary plastics, such as cigarette butts and bottle caps, or secondary plastics, resulting from the degradation of the primary ones.

According to some researchers from the Swansea University UK, disposable face masks could be releasing chemical pollutants and nano-plastics into the environment.

The researchers said there was the need for better regulation and more research on the public health impact of indiscriminate disposal of face masks globally.

According to the study, 12 billion medical and fabric face masks are discarded monthly, giving the likelihood that an equivalent of 105,000 tonnes of face masks per month could be disposed into the environment by Africans.

Governments globally have already begun to explore the alternative solutions including the reuse, reprocessing and disinfection of approved disposable masks, and producing biodegradable masks and homemade or non-certified masks.

In 2018, Nigeria was estimated to have discharged about 200,000 tonnes of plastic wastes into the ocean, while its annual plastics production is projected to grow to 523,000 tonnes by 2022.

Nigerian government officially joined the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), a platform that works with governments, businesses and civil society to translate plastic pollution commitments into concrete solutions.

“The goal is to deliver a national action plan for radically reducing plastic pollution, connecting high-potential solutions with strategic financing opportunities.

“With this partnership, Nigeria is further reinforcing its commitments and efforts towards addressing plastic pollution and safeguarding the environment,” Nigeria’s Minister of Environment, Mohammad Mahmood Abubakar, said.

According to some environmental experts, a worrisome trend is the littering of water bodies with used face masks,

They said that there was need for concerted efforts to manage the impact of COVID-19 in the environment.

Describing disposable face masks as the next plastic problem, Mr Sylvester Arogundade of  Earth and Environment Initiative, noted that if not disposed correctly, they may end up in the environment, freshwater systems and the oceans.

He said it was worrisome that countries had no data to ascertain the amount of disposable face masks in the environment, and called for end to indiscriminate dumping of plastics into the nation’s water bodies.

Corroborating further, he noted that if not curtailed effectively, these plastics could release harmful chemical and biological substances indirectly to plants, animals and humans.

The expert said these disposable face masks, made from polypropylene could take no fewer than 450 years to decompose.

He called for the setting up of ‘mask-only’ trash cans for collection and safe disposal of used masks in public places.

“We are calling for standardisation, guidelines and strict implementation of waste management laws for face masks.

“We also call for Nigeria to replace disposable masks with reusable face masks like cotton masks, we should begin to consider the development of biodegradable disposal masks.’’

On his part, Dr Ibrahim Choji, Chairman, Board of Trustees, Climate and Sustainable Development Network (CSDevNet), called on the Federal Government to go beyond rhetoric and set in motion the process of banning single-use plastic in Nigeria.

According to him, while plastic has many valuable uses, Nigeria has become over-reliant on single-use or disposable plastic with severe environmental consequences.

“CSDevNet recognises that beating plastic pollution is a huge challenge especially when we consider the perverse culture of current disposable economy.

“Dumping plastic bottles, bags and cups after a single use is projected to result in our oceans holding more litter than fish by 2050, while an estimated 99 per cent of all seabirds will have ingested plastic.

“We need fish, not plastics, the Federal Government has a major role to play in beating plastic pollution and particularly addressing the current scourge of plastic waste on urban and rural landscapes across Nigeria.’’

He said that several African countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Mauritania, Tunisia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Morocco, South Africa have enacted laws related to the ban on the use, manufacture and importation of single-use plastic bags.

“We believe Nigeria can toe this line by providing incentives such as tax breaks for companies to encourage recycling as well as to transform their production processes towards the production of biodegradable alternatives.

“The country can also strictly enforce legislation as part of a holistic programme for sustainably transforming the economy and banning all non-biodegradable plastics from the country.”

Choji added that the organisation in partnership with Federal Ministry of Environment and Oxfam Nigeria, was engaging stakeholders to review Climate Resilience, focusing on policy issues around wetlands conservation.

This, he noted, would improve governance of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Responses with stronger wetland policy alignment.

He said it would also improve action plans with realistic short, medium and long-term plans for achievement of government’s goals on wetland conservation in Nigeria and development of indicators for effective tracking of progress.

Adding his voice, Mr Ahmed Shehu, an environmental expert, called for adoption of cotton-based cloth masks and complete ban on single-use face masks.

He stressed that continuous use of single-use masks, which are non-biodegradable is a big threat to the environment.

“Face masks pollution is a threat to the environment, most of them wash up into our water bodies, we must act now to protect our environment,’’ he emphasised.

By Tosin Kolade

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