You are currently viewing Plastic waste: An environmental pain

Plastic waste: An environmental pain

PLASTIC waste has been a subject of discussion and worry for a long time now and with the growth in population, the use of plastics has also grown exponentially.
A plastic is mostly a non-biodegradable product made from synthetic polymers of mainly petrochemical base.  Plastic is highly mouldable and as such it is preferred in production of most day-to-day products replacing steel, glass, wood, ceramics; the list is endless.  The very fact that most of it is non-biodegradable has become a source of worry for environmentalists and well-meaning citizens all over the world particularly plastic carrier bags.
Here at home we have seen the proliferation in the use of plastics to an alarming rate.  One needs to just move around the cities and towns to see that plastics have literally been thrown around, especially plastic bottles and carrier bags, which are an eyesore indeed.  Plastic flowers at graveyards are another example.  Shopping carrier bags are given out like confetti even when one purchases a toothbrush (already packaged in a plastic encasement) you get a plastic carrier bag to carry it home!
A few years ago, Honourable Sylvia Masebo, as Minister of Local Government and Housing then, did propagate the idea of banning plastic carrier bags from our society but I feel she was not supported enough by fellow legislators and also by environmentalists (I being one of them) to carry the day, a huge letdown it was indeed.
The European Union has taken steps to ban the use of plastic bags, California and other States in America, too, have banned the use of plastic bags, and here in Africa, Rwanda has banned the use of plastics carrier bags from shops, but instead encourages paper bags. One would argue, what about the trees? Will they not suffer the extinction fate? The answer is perhaps no, if we re-cycle the paper and plant more trees.  Recycling plastics is not cheap at all and using it, as material for other purposes, has not been explored enough.
As engineers we need to lead the way in finding alternative uses of plastics. Disposing of plastic bags and bottles in a careless manner is one of the worst forms of environmental disasters.  If we can, for example, collect these empty plastic bottles, this can create employment for the youths. If we fill them with lean mix mortar, this could make a good building material for low cost housing; other uses could be obscure glazing for windows.
The government needs to encourage and financially support research in such fields. If we can re-capitalise the Technology Development Advisory Unit (TDAU) of the University of Zambia School of Engineering, School of Built Environment at Copperbelt University, National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research (NISIR), National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) including all universities and colleges that have engineering faculties, we can promote research and development starting with Junior Engineering Technicians and Scientists (JETS) in secondary schools.
The Zambia Environmental Management Agency (ZEMA), established through an act of parliament, amended through the Environmental Management Act (EMA) No. 12 of 2011, must spearhead the enactment of a law banning the use of plastic bags. ZEMA must enforce laws governing the disposal of plastic waste. I feel ZEMA is not doing enough on this front.  It is refreshing to hear that ZEMA has sued Lusaka Water & Sewerage Company (LWSC) for not submitting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for a water project in Kabangwe area of Lusaka. Should the general populace led by environmentalists sue ZEMA as well for not doing enough about plastic wastes? Only posterity will judge us.
If I may ask, what happened to the humble shopping basket that our mothers used to carry to the market?  Driving to the Eastern Province recently, I stopped over at Luangwa Bridge and there one finds reed woven baskets of different shapes and sizes, why can’t we encourage the use of these instead of plastic carrier bags? This will be creating jobs for our people as well.
Japan, a country obsessed with cleanliness, has a day in a month reserved for cleaning the environment. Rwanda, too, has a similar scheme to rid the environment of unwanted dirt accumulation.  Here at home let us pick a pilot project, choose a town like Kalulushi, ban plastic bags, and start a “Clean my town” campaign.  Cleanliness is next to Godliness, we were taught from childhood.
Digging rubbish pits in the backyard popularly known as “muganda” must be discouraged and banned, the non-biodegradable plastics remain in the ground. If for instance in future should one require building over the “muganda”, you will find difficulties in constructing your foundations.
The author is an engineer and is Technical Director, JKL-Associates.