Lagos, Nigeria — For years, Maryam Lawani was really pained when it rained. She lived in the Oshodi Isolo area of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, where canals often overflow messily into the streets during downpours.
Additionally, she was always struck by the huge amount of plastic waste on the streets after the rains receded and how this in turn affected mobility or even made the roads deteriorate. After even a little rain in Lagos, the streets get muddy and potholes brimming by the side with broken plastics, gin sachets, pure water nylons, used diapers and other items.
“I felt a strong need to prevent climate crises as a response to a personal pain point,” she told Al Jazeera. So she began to research the recurring problem and then discovered that plastic pollution was a global issue.
According to the United Nations, on average, the world produces 430 million tonnes of plastic every year; wrappers for chocolate bars, packets and plastic utensils. And there are consequences; every day, the equivalent of over 2,000 garbage trucks full of plastic are dumped into water bodies. As a result, plastic pollution is set to triple by 2060 if no action is taken.
UN reports also say that Nigeria generates about 2.5 million metric tonnes of plastic waste annually. Of that, over 130,000 tonnes of plastic make their way into water bodies, putting the country among the top 20 contributors to marine debris globally.
And while Nigeria has several dumping sites for waste, those in the environmental sector like Olumide Idowu, executive director for International Climate Change Initiative, say there is no exact data on their number or capacity to handle large volumes of waste sufficiently.
So waste has visibly caused blocked drainages and pollution, even as climate shocks like floods hit parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This is most obvious in Lagos, the country’s most populated city, with an estimated 24 million people.
Compared to other developing countries like Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, which have banned single-use plastics or are gradually eliminating them, Nigeria hasn’t done much to combat plastic pollution, experts say.
In 2020, the Ministry of Environment launched the Nigeria Circular Economy Policy to help transition the country to a circular economy and promote sustainable waste management. But Idowu says proper waste collection and recycling facilities are still needed for Nigeria to tackle plastic pollution effectively.
“Nigeria may also need to strengthen existing regulations or introduce new ones to address plastic pollution,” he says, adding that the country’s large population could also be a challenge in enforcing them. ”[But] economic constraints and lack of alternative packaging options may hinder the transition away from single-use plastics.”
“As more individuals, businesses, and the government recognize the value of upcycling, it is likely that the sector will grow and contribute to a more sustainable and circular economy in Nigeria,” Idowu says.
Climate Lead’s Oladosu says there is a need to involve as many people as possible in the movement for a cleaner, greener Nigeria.
“We need to make people understand that climate change is real, and it will affect everyone regardless of where they live, Ajegunle or Lekki,” she said. “We can all feel the heat of the sun, the impact of flooding, etc. There are different angles to mitigating climate change and recycling is just one. Another is responsible consumption. There is a need for everyone to be climate and environmentally conscious.”
The recycling mission
During her research, Lawani discovered she could recycle plastics to help clean up the neighbourhood mess. So in 2015, she founded Greenhill Recycling which now recovers an average of 100-200 tonnes of waste monthly, she says.
Her business also provides a means of supplemental income for people around her, by paying them around 100-150 naira ($0.1265) for every kilogramme of trash collected.
“We encourage and sensitise people not to thrash waste but to bag them neatly in their homes,” she told Al Jazeera. “We pick up from their doorstep, their homes and not in dump sites.”
“Waste is a currency to address other issues around poverty, unemployment and the environment. People are able to exchange waste for profitable things like school fees, clothes and even food,” Lawani added.
Like Lawani’s Greenhill Recycling, several other women-led upcycling and recycling companies have sprung up in Africa’s largest economy, in addition to the well-known Wecyclers social enterprise.
In coastal Lagos, RESWAYE (Recycling Scheme for Women and Youth Empowerment) works in communities with women and young girls who are trained to go into schools and estates to retrieve plastics. Their collections go to a sorting hub and from there to upscalers.
Doyinsola Ogunye, founder of RESWAYE told Al Jazeera that it has reached 4000 women in 41 coastal communities in Lagos, while also giving personal hygiene kits to them and providing scholarships for children.
There is also the nonprofit Foundation for A Better Nigeria (FABE) founded by Temitope Okunnu in 2006 to create awareness about climate change in schools. It operates across three states.
“We visit primary, secondary schools and universities to sensitise young children about climate issues,” she said. “Behavioural change is still a big issue in this part of the country which is why we are focused on young children.”
Through an initiative called EcoSchoolsNg, it teaches students skills such as sustainable waste management – by recycling, upcycling or composting – and sustainable gardening.
FABE says it promotes plastic upscaling because according to Okunnu, “plastic is money but only a few people know this”, she told Al Jazeera.
The increasing awareness about recycling plastic into usable products can also be great for keeping youth engaged, says Adenike Titilope Oladosu, founder of ILead Climate, a climate justice advocacy.
The need for more work
Despite the work of these women and numerous non-profits to educate Nigerians on the adverse effects of climate change, ignorance is still widespread.
Passengers in moving vehicles still casually fling sachets and bottles onto the streets just like others sweep household waste into canals.
For Lawani and Okunnu, this is more evidence of the need to ingrain awareness of the environment and related consequences in their fellow Nigerians at all income cadres, from a young age.
“Exposed and enlightened young children are well aware but less privileged children whose concern is how to get the next meal may not be concerned about this so we need to direct our attention to them, sensitise people, help people find a link,” Lawani said. “People can easily relate to blocked drainages so teach people at their level. Help them see these links and connections and how it affects them too.”