Polymer products are increasingly among the daily needs of humans. Barely a day passes without the need for its products as polyethene wraps and pet bottles among other uses.
The United Nations Environment Programme stated that one million plastic bottles were purchased every minute and up to five trillion plastic bags used globally every year.
The UNEP also stated that each year, 400 million tonnes of plastics were produced and 40 per cent of the plastics used only once before being disposed of.
However, the non-biodegradable nature of plastics makes them stay in the environment for many years, consequently polluting the environment.
The World Population review in its 2022 Plastic Pollution by Country report ranked Nigeria as the fifth largest country with the most plastic pollution, of about 1.94 million tons. Nigeria further ranked top 10 among countries that evade proper disposal or recycling of plastic waste which end up decaying on land or more frequently, in the ocean.
Research further showed that single-use plastic products such as food and beverage containers contributed about 85 per cent of unregulated waste and ended up in landfills.
To combat the pollution of rivers and oceans and clogging of landfills, many countries have banned single-use of polyethene wraps and plastic bags and embraced recycling. But, only 10 per cent of these products have been recycled, globally.
Understandably, environmentalists have called for a total boycott of plastics. But further research and developments were carried out to resolve the problem posed by low-quality recycling.
Upcycling is another way recycled plastic was turned into a more valuable product as clothing and building materials among others, which contributed to the economy of many nations.
Recently, the University of California developed a new chemical process that converted polyethene plastics into “a strong and more valuable adhesive that could change the calculus.”
This discovery, the researchers noted, would ensure that recycled plastics were upcycled to create glues that could stick to metals and produce higher value and economically attractive products.
Nigeria has a huge plastic waste challenge and the majority constitute economic waste when it should have been recycled and upcycled.
To reverse the trend, experts advised the country to turn its plastic waste into huge economic benefits and reduce environmental waste.
In his contribution, a professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, Sulyman Abdulkareem, said that polymers were the most useful materials due to their ability to be easily recycled and remoulded to form other materials.
He however added that the improper disposal of plastics posed a problem to effective recycling.
Abdulkareem said, “Worldwide, there are claims that recycling of polymer is between 16 and 20 per cent which is to say that we are not the only one culpable of this offence. The situation in Nigeria is that by the time you see the quality of the discarded bottles or sachets, it is no longer useful because it will be so dirty that one cannot think of putting them to any useful use. But if we can get over the disposal problem and sort this polymer properly, there is no end to the use one can put them to. There is no limit to what one can use a polymer to do as a recycled material. The only thing is that it is weaker than the original material and there is no end to how many times one can melt it.”
The researcher on polymer waste conversion added that polymer materials blended with natural oils could also be used to make candles and devices to separate water from oil.
Abdulkareem, who said he invented an oil spill management device, added that the proper disposal of polymer would promote recycling into various products such as polymer cloths, woods and chairs among others.
Also, a professor of Polymer Technology at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State, Abdullahi Danladi, said that the indiscriminate disposal of plastic waste caused many havoc to the environment.
The don added that discarded plastic wraps and bottles could be recycled and “formed into fibres and woven into clothes.’’ He explained that it was one of the recent inventions where people wear a 100 per cent recycled polyester bottle shirt.
Danladi stated, “You can recycle the material and it can be processed into suture materials for stitching wounds, especially in animals. Similarly, recently, research has been ongoing whereby recycled plastics are melted and mixed with sand to form interlocking blocks which can be used for tiles and to make buildings. By so doing, recycled materials will form a good proportion of building materials. Plastic materials could be recycled into building and flooring materials. They are strong and they don’t rust because when they are disposed of, they can stay in the sand for up to 300 years without being rotten and that is why they contributed to environmental hazards.”
He urged the government to create policies to facilitate the proper disposal of plastic materials which would promote recycling into usable products, adding that the process of recycling would further provide job opportunities for youths.
Danladi stated, “The plastic market is large and the end use is almost endless and one can convert it to several materials that can be used in our day-to-day lives.’’
On his part, President, African Association of Polymer Scientists and Engineers, Paul Mamza, stated that the adoption of built-in biodegradable and photodegradable plastics would combat the menace of plastics.
He added that recycling was capital intensive and Nigeria lacked the industrialisation process to help the local fabrication of the machinery.
Mamza said, “Plastics are fast replacing traditional materials such as metals and ceramics because plastics have more economic and technical advantages of low cost and effective quality in terms of viability. However, virtually all materials thrown into refuse dumps are made up of indestructible plastics. The simplest plastic; polyethene, which is a major component of household items in Nigeria, takes almost a decade for it to start to decompose by itself. That is to tell you how long plastics undergo degradation by themselves.”
The professor of Polymer Science and Technology added that the traditional method of recycling and disposal of plastics was disadvantageous to the health and caused environmental hazards.
Mamza further stated that the technological world was engaged with biodegradable and photodegradable plastics in which microorganisms and photosensitive groupings were incorporated to aid decomposition after use.
He also said that plastic waste were being utilised as replacements in building, communications, transportation, and electrical accessories and as a source of wealth in some developed countries rather than a menace.
He added that the government’s proposed ban on single-use of plastics would be an inefficient approach towards handling the environmental hazards posed by plastic waste.
According to him, adoption of professional advice on the utilisation of plastics waste would open new vistas for economic viability, diversification and employment opportunities.
However, in his contribution, an environmental activist, Nnimmo Bassey, stated that only a tiny fraction of plastics was recycled globally.
He added that recycling plastics would only reduce waste to a minimal level, noting that the solution was to stop plastic use.
Bassey said, “Plastics have entered into our civilisation so much. We just have to rethink our whole economy and the materials that we use to do things. Recycling plastics and separating waste are good but we have to agree also that we are not good at waste management which is a national problem. We have few properly designed and constructed dumps. Many of our cities still have waste dumped in the middle of them. So the problem is more fundamental than recycling plastics.”