Following the ban on the use of styrofoam and single-use plastic by the Lagos State Government, some food vendors in the state have resorted to the use of nylon bags in packing food for their customers. SODIQ OJUROUNGBE reports
Local food vendors operating in different parts of Lagos State are in a quandary as the ban on ‘take-away’ containers and single-use plastic has left them with few alternatives. Some are voicing their frustration, saying that customers should bring their plates if they are not ready to eat them in their shops. Others said they have resorted to the use of nylon bags in packing food for their customers which many of them are comfortable with citing economic conditions.
Some food vendors told our correspondent that they were compelled to switch over to the use of nylon bags when the state government failed to provide them with cheaper and better alternatives after the ban.
PUNCH Healthwise visited some parts of the state where local food vendors operate in their numbers and they promised to comply with the government’s new directive.
However, some told our correspondent that they have already found new and cheaper ways of packaging food for their customers, who are mostly in a rush to get to work every morning.
The food vendors said they were already using nylon bags as alternatives and also asking their customers to come with their Tiffin boxes or reusable containers when coming to buy food.
They, however, complained that the Lagos State Government did not give adequate notice before the ban, as it is the best global practice when the government is about to implement a defining policy that affects businesses.
In a move to address climate change concerns, the Lagos State Government recently banned the distribution and use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) and other single-use plastics in the state.
The state Commissioner for the Environment and Water Resources, Tokunbo Wahab, stated that the campaign against environmental vandalism would start with polystyrene (popularly known as Styrofoam), microbeads, carrier bags, plastic spoons, straws and disposable cups because they do not have recyclable potential.
According to him, Lagos grapples with poor hygiene behaviours and indiscriminate waste disposal habits by residents.
Reports state that Lagos generates 870,000 tonnes of plastic and loses N7bn annually managing waste.
The commissioner said drainage networks were often clogged due to the reckless disposal of non-biodegradable items; roads and markets are littered despite the best efforts of the Lagos State Waste Management Authority.
Wahab noted that the larger chunk of littering across major roads and markets which LAWMA contends with daily was made up of styrofoams, stressing that the state government cannot fold its hands and watch the continued desecration of its environment, especially as a coastal city.
Wahab directed LAWMA and the Kick Against Indiscipline to commence the implementation of the ban immediately.
The Commissioner tasked the two agencies to clamp down on all the production companies and distribution outlets for styrofoams in the state to prevent further distribution.
He stated that the state took the present action, relying on several enabling laws and regulations such as the National Environmental (Sanitation and Waste Control) Regulation 2009 which was established under the NESREA Act that prohibited and specifically banned single-use plastic in the country but has not been enforced.
However, the state government on Thursday said it would be giving a three-week extension on the implementation of the ban to enable producers to clear their stock.
Use of nylon bags
Some of the food vendors operating in the Ikeja, Agege, and Ojodu areas of the state told PUNCH Healthwise that they were worried about the impact of the ban on their business.
More than 15 roadside food vendors said that the majority of their customers are people heading to work, who are unable to eat at their kiosks or home.
They explained that to make carrying the food for their customers easier, they used to give them free styrofoam containers before the ban.
A food vendor at Ikeja, Wasiu Olori told our correspondent that following the ban, he had advised his customers to always come with reusable containers whenever they wanted a take-out.
“I have started telling my customers to come with their reusable containers because this is a directive by the government and there is nothing we can do than to comply.
“For those that do not come with their plates, I have to package them in polythene bags. Although some customers don’t like the use of nylon bags, they are left with no choice but to find an alternative way of surviving in the business.
“We used to give them the Styrofoam container for free because many of them are always in a rush to go to work in the morning. But with this ban, we have to use nylon as an alternative,” he said.
A noodles seller at Allen Avenue, Keji Ayinla, appealed to the government to allow the use of single-use plastic, even if there would be a total ban on the use of styrofoam.
Ayinla argued that noodles, especially when hot, cannot be dished in nylon bags.
“The government should have allowed us to continue with single-use plastic. Banning everything is not a good decision.
“Using nylon bags is the best alternative for now, but I sell noodles and it is not advisable to put hot noodles inside nylon. So, the best thing anybody who wants to buy food from me will do is to come with their plates.
“This is seriously going to affect sales because many of my customers are people always in a rush because of the lifestyle of Lagos. You can now imagine if they cannot get all these single-use plastics to package their food, what do you think will happen to what I am selling,” she questioned in Yoruba.
Nutrition experts said the Lagos State government should try and introduce paper packaging containers as an alternative to styrofoam and single-use plastic.
The nutritionists said the use of nylons or cellophane bags to package cooked food was dangerous.
According to them nylons or cellophane bags produced dioxins when heated, warning that dioxins were highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and also cause cancer.
Single-use plastic non-biodegradable
According to the European Commission, single-use plastic products are used once, or for a short period, before being thrown away. The impacts of this plastic waste on the environment and our health are global and can be drastic.
The European Commission added that SUPs are disposable objects that are frequently used for packing. Examples include plates, cups, cutlery, plastic bottles, nylon bags, straws, and sachet water.
The United Nations noted that these materials could take about 20 to 500 years to decompose, and even at that, they never fully disappeared.
The international organisation stressed that while nine percent of plastics are recycled globally, SUPs end up in drainage systems, clogging rivers and contributing to urban flooding everywhere.
Also, a roadside food vendor at Agege, simply identified as Iya Kao, said she would make nylon bags available for customers who cannot come with reusable containers.
She said, “I am going to use nylon bags for customers who do have plates with them once the Styrofoam packs that I have are finished.
“These Styrofoam containers are given free of charge to customers, and since the government said we should not use it again, any customer that does not come with a plate should know that a polythene bag is the only alternative for now.”
A study on the dangers of nylon bags for cooked foods published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that phthalates leached into food at levels that were above the safe limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the study, phthalates are known to disrupt the endocrine system, which is responsible for regulating hormones.
The study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, United States of America, discovered that exposure to phthalates has been linked to several health risks, including reproductive problems and developmental issues.
The study noted that exposure to phthalates during pregnancy has been linked to reduced fertility, birth defects, and developmental delays in children.
The study’s findings showed that the amount of phthalates leached into food was dependent on the type of food, the temperature at which it was cooked, and the duration of cooking.
According to the researchers, foods that were higher in fat and protein were more likely to leach phthalates, as were foods that were cooked at higher temperatures.
The researchers recommended that people avoid packaging cooked foods in nylon bags, and instead use materials such as glass or stainless steel containers.
Nutritionists proffer solution
Meanwhile, nutrition experts have appealed to the Lagos State Government to replace Styrofoam and single-use plastic with paper packaging containers to avoid throwing food vendors out of business.
The nutritionists noted that paper packaging materials were a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option, and could help to reduce polluting the environment with waste.
Speaking exclusively with PUNCH Healthwise, the nutritionists said the ban was a welcome development only if people involved in the production of Styrofoam and single-use plastic were carried along by the state government.
While noting that styrofoam and single-use plastic release harmful chemicals and microplastics into the environment, the nutritionists explained that paper packaging containers were made from renewable resources, and were fully biodegradable.
They also pointed out that paper packaging materials were less likely to contain harmful chemicals and pollutants, which could leach into food and drink.
A Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Ignatius Onimawo, said styrofoam and single-use plastic were not biodegradable, stressing that they cause a lot of problems to the environment.
Onimawo, who is a former President of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria, stated that it would be a welcome development if the Lagos State Government had notified the stakeholders in the plastic industry of its plan before the ban.
The nutritionist, also a former Vice-Chancellor of Ambrose Alli University, Ekpoma, Edo State, acknowledged that styrofoam and single-use plastics were destroying the environment by blocking drainages.
The don explained, “Right now in the US, they don’t use plastic anymore. They use a design paper for takeaway because if you throw it away, it will be degraded, it’s biodegradable.
“So, I think that is the direction the Lagos State Government wants to go. Paper bags, cartons, and containers are what are used now in many developed countries as packaging materials for food and other such items.”
Corroborating his statement, a nutritionist, Odunayo Babatunde, said chemicals like bisphenol A and styrene could get into food and drinks from styrofoam and single-use plastics, especially when they get hot.
BPA are common compound used in the production of plastics.
When such plastics are used to package food or beverages and the compounds seep into the food items, they become cancer-causing agents.
Research has also established the possible link between BPA and increased blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
The nutritionists added that when these things break down into very small pieces that get into water and food chains, they could hurt people and animals.
While describing the ban as a smart idea, Babatunde, however, said the government was too quick to ban styrofoam and single-use plastic in a state with more than 22 million people.
She noted, “Paper and cardboard containers, packaging made from bagasse (sugarcane fibre), bamboo, and plastics that can be broken down in nature from plant starch or other materials are all safer options. Businesses could also use packages that can be used more than once.
“It seems smart, even if it’s quick, to ban common hazardous trash in an area with more than 21 million people to stop the problem of plastic pollution and its effects.
“But to be successful, you need to plan, build infrastructure, find cheap alternatives on a large scale, and work with the business sector.
“A planned, step-by-step method with help from business stakeholders may make the change easier.”
According to a United Nations Industrial Development Organisation report, Nigeria generates over 32 million tonnes of waste annually with plastic accounting for 2.5 million tonnes. Nigeria is among the top 20 nations that contribute 83 per cent of the total volume of land-based plastic waste that ends up in the oceans.
The global organisation noted that less than 12 per cent of the waste is recycled while about 80 per cent ends up in landfills and unregulated dump sites.
Styrofoam causes cancer, flooding
Environmental experts say the use of single-use plastics and styrofoam is a major contributor to flooding and the growing waste problem in Lagos State.
The environmentalists noted that these products are often not recycled, and they end up polluting landfills and waterways.
While commending the Lagos State government for banning single-use plastics and styrofoam, the experts explained that when these products break down, they release toxic chemicals into the environment.
According to them, these chemicals can contaminate the soil and water, harming wildlife and causing health problems for people.
Stressing that styrofoam products can take hundreds of years to decompose, the experts added that the production of single-use plastics and styrofoam also contributes to climate change and causes cancer.
The President of the Africa Environmental Health Organisation, Afolabi Abiodun, called for more sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics and styrofoam, suggesting the use of reusable containers made from materials like glass, metal, and biodegradable plastics.
He added, “People discard this plastic or single-use plastic material indiscriminately, and these same plastics find their way into our drainage system, block the drainage system during rainfall, thereby causing flooding.
“When it blocks the water flow, it serves as a platform for mosquitoes to breed, creating malaria for people.
“Using plastics in whatever form, either in minute quantity or whatever quantity can cause cancer which is another health implication of this plastic waste we are talking about.
“Lagos state government banning the use of plastics or single use of plastics is a good idea; it’s a welcome idea and we need it at this time of climate change issue.”
Abiodun advised the government to embark on enforcement with the right education, stressing the importance of sensitising the people on the dangers the products pose to the environment.
On his part, a professor of Polymer Chemistry at the Federal University of Oye Ekiti, Dosu Malomo, stated that the government needs to move swiftly to advocate for alternatives for the banned single-use plastic and Styrofoam.
Malomo noted that to fully eradicate the detrimental impacts that single-use plastics and Styrofoam have on the environment, the government needs to make strong advocacy in the media.
He added, “The government needs to make strong advocacy. They must get competent people who can help them make strong advocacy in the media on the serious environmental effects of styrofoam and single-use plastics that they are trying to stop completely.
“Let me tell you that there are some parts of the world that don’t produce this, again, they don’t use it at all. Go online, check. They don’t even produce. You won’t find them there.
“The ones you find are mainly pepper bottles. And once they use them, they return them to where they bought the drinks. Those people from where you bought it, will collect the bottle from you. They will use it again to reproduce. If you go there, they will pay you some money for returning the bottles.
“And then of course, we have to also take this to the grassroots, let’s say, secondary school level, the chemistry or the science of environmental effects of polymeric materials to society. At least once people start getting that early education. As they grow, they will be able to cope with government policy on control of these materials or complete stoppage of the use of these materials.”