“On World Environment Day, the message is simple: reject the single-use plastic. Refuse what you can`t reuse. Together, we can chart a path to a cleaner, greener world” – UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres.
As the world’s population continues to grow, the amount of waste and garbage being produced also increases in a linear proportion. Plastic is a useful and ubiquitous material used daily by man which has, however, become a tragedy of the 21st century. The growing use and dump of plastic material in the course of our day to day activities has led to the proliferation of plastic wastes around the globe.
Its toxic constituents and non-biodegradable nature has made plastic hazardous to human health and the environment. Plastic pollution is the accumulation of plastic material such that it began to impact adversely on plants, aquatic habitats and human beings, when contacted through the air we breathe, food consumed or through drinking water. A recent study has shown plastic to be one of the most noticeable pollutants affecting the world’s oceans.
With the projected exponential growth of Africa’s population, pollution is also expected to increase tremendously. A 2017 study has shown that 4.4 million metric tons of plastics have been mismanaged in 2010 alone. This is projected to increase to about 10.5 million metric tons by 2025, if nothing deliberate is done to lessen the wave of land-based plastic.
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Plastics are composed of chemicals characterized by flexibility and durability. These include but are not limited to Bisphenol A and Phthalates; studies have proved their potential effects on the environment and human health to be harmful. Upon the intake of plastic particles such as Bisphenol A – which is often found in food and beverages containers – it interacts with the cells and tissues of the body and alter the normal biochemical processes occurring in the cell.
Some of the observed effects of plastic particle toxicity include oxidative stress, cell damage and inflammation. Plastic debris and waste also act as a layer and reservoir for pathogenic microorganisms and parasites to grow. Drinking or bathing water easily comes in contact with plastic debris that is harboring pathogenic vectors which increases the risk of infection and worsens the spread of diseases such as Malaria, Zika virus, Dengue fever and Chikugunya.
Plastic pollution is glaringly threatening global efforts towards achieving sustainable development. The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are all aimed at improving livelihoods. Specifically, Goal 14 and 15 are focused on the protection, conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas and marine resources, terrestrial ecosystems as well as biodiversity. To achieve this important goals the world must urgently mitigate the impacts of plastic pollution.
Some of the approaches to mitigating plastic pollution include initiatives and innovations along the plastic value chain such as reduced plastic production and provision of eco-friendly plastic products, reduced waste generation and improved waste management and sanitation facilities.
New and emerging technologies such as biotechnology and genetic engineering hold the solution for combating plastic pollution. For example, using genetic engineering techniques scientists can engineer bacteria or enzymes to eat up chemical toxins contained in plastics and convert them to less harmful products.
The journey towards combating plastic pollution is a collective one. Governments must create adequate policies and regulations and improve waste management facilities. We must continue to create awareness; we must embrace technology and innovation and employ conscious efforts to be able to beat plastic pollution. We are the custodians of our environment.
Abdullahi Tsanni is a Biochemist, essayist and a freelance science writer based in Abuja, Nigeria. His interests include agricultural research for development (AR4D), climate change and sustainable development goals. Follow him on Twitter @abdultsanni. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect African Newspage’s editorial policy.