How Plastic Travels to the Sea: A Journey of a Thousand Miles

How Plastic Travels to the Sea: A Journey of a Thousand Miles

In the last couple of years, a lot has been done to bring increased attention to the ongoing and growing plastic crisis. The most glaring manifestation of this plastic crisis is perhaps the state of our oceans today, with the Pacific Garbage Patch reportedly the size of Texas. Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fishes and turtles often mistake plastic waste for prey, and thousands of them die with their stomachs filled with plastic debris. 

A whole lot has already been said about the harmful effects of plastic in our oceans but not much is said about how the plastic waste gets there. According to a 2017 research study, 90% of all ocean plastic comes from 10 major rivers across the globe; eight of these are found in Asia (the Yangtze in China followed by the Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong) while the remaining two are situated in Africa. These two are the River Nile in Egypt and the River Niger which is in my home country, Nigeria. For obvious reasons, my concern here mainly lies with the latter.

Read More: Most Plastic in Our Oceans Can Be Traced Back to Just 10 Rivers

Now the Niger River is one of Africa’s most prominent rivers particularly as it is the longest and largest river in West Africa. Its basin covers about 7.5% of the continent and it serves as a vital resource to people and wildlife. It runs through 10 African countries and at the end of its circuit, finally empties into the Atlantic Ocean. On its Eastern end lies the city of Onitsha in the South-Eastern region of Nigeria. Onitsha is a bustling city of over one million people, renowned throughout the continent for its industry and commerce. This city is old and wise. It boasts of some of the biggest markets in West Africa but unfortunately, it is also known for its poor waste management system seeing, the World Health Organization finding it the fourth dirtiest city in the world. 

Mountains of plastic trash on the banks of the River Niger. All images supplied by author.

On assignment, I decided to visit Onitsha to trace the journey of plastic from the city to the ocean. The goal of this assignment was to go beyond the surface in the coverage of plastic and discover the socio-economic factors that get them there. As in most cities, especially in developing countries, I found that a wide range of plastic items are used in Onitsha. From coolers and biscuit wrappers to shopping bags and plastic straws, there was always a plastic product within sight. The most common variety of plastic in use was bottled water and bottled beverages. There was also sachet water, which as the name suggests, literally means water for drinking packaged in small High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) sachets. 

Related Post: Nigeria to Ban Single-Use Plastic Bags

This packaging technique is unique to my part of the world because water packaged in this way is cheaper than most. Sachet water is consumed in such great volumes that it very easily is the biggest plastic challenge in the whole city of Onitsha. No one seems to have any data on the quantity of sachet water produced or consumed daily within the city. The traders and food vendors I posed the question to found it most amusing and the manufacturing companies I visited wouldn’t even address the issue and it didn’t seem to matter how often I asked them to. 

A man sells beverages in the city.

Now one very simple discovery I made on this assignment was that the journey of ocean plastic in Onitsha almost always begins very innocently. The process is kick started when a thirsty person buys a bottle or sachet of water to quench his/her thirst but the real plastic journey begins after the water or beverage is drunk. The consumer has a choice to make here; he/she has to choose between throwing the empty plastic package into a refuse bin (which isn’t always within sight by the way) or just simply discarding it by the roadside. If a refuse bin is used for disposal, then the plastic bottles will eventually be pushed to recycling factories in the city. 

But where the consumer discards it by the roadside (as is often the case), the bottle of water is either picked up by scavengers or finds its way to the wide city gutters and eventually down to the Niger River. The city brims with scavengers and they generally make their living by collecting discarded plastic items such as empty plastic bags and delivering it to the sorting companies. Their finds are measured in kilograms and I later learned that they get paid about 30 cents per kilo for their efforts. These companies sort through the plastic pile and then, sell the sorted and cleaned plastic to the crushing companies. In some cases, the sorting companies also crush themselves. And from there it goes to plastic companies who manufacture the bottles used in drinks. 

Related Post: Here’s What Happens to Our Plastic Recycling When It Goes Offshore

A woman at her small scale recycling operation.

Now recall that this city of Onitsha boasts of a network of drainages all channeled in some way into the River Niger. My visit was made during the dry season, so I could very clearly see that all the city gutters were packed full with plastic refuse. These gutters were made deep and wide primarily to meet with or control the heavy rainfall that the city experiences each year. So, if the water sachet, plastic bottle or any other plastic litter falls into any of these gutters, it has already begun its journey to the world’s oceans. Put differently, the depths of these gutters make it impossible for even the scavengers to rummage through and so the plastic bags continue to pile in them until the rain comes to wash them out to the River Niger, rendering them forever lost to any manner of recycling. 

While a lot of these plastic wastes flow through the deep drainage of the city and onward to the river in the foregoing manner; some others are thrown directly into the river for onward transmission to the sea. One of the most notable features of Onitsha is its main market, a sprawling market the likes of which most Westerners have never seen. Now the River Niger runs directly behind this market and as you can imagine, tons of goods are bought and sold there daily. I mean it’s a big market afterall. The goods are often packaged in plastic bags for convenience which means that tons of garbage is produced daily as well. 

Plastic and other waste making its way to the river.

Now at the close of business each day, shopkeepers get rid of the dirt from the shops and then in accordance to some kind of unwritten code, the garbage collected is taken directly behind the market and dumped into the River Niger; the de facto dumpsite of the market. I found that this practice thrives because there are practically no better disposal options available in the market and even though these shop owners hope that the river tides would take the refuse out to sea, they frankly didn’t seem to acknowledge how that could pose a problem for them in the long run. Put differently, they didn’t seem to understand what havoc their actions could wreak in the ocean or in our collective futures. What they cared about most in that moment, is that the garbage is removed from the shops and out of sight. 

This plastic waste, joined with others flowing from the gutters, have formed a veritable mountain of plastic right on the River Niger. According to my boat driver, the piles have been there for years; never decomposing only growing. Each time the tide rises, it washes away a portion and a part of the plastic waste starts flowing towards the nearest ocean. The fishermen shared stories of encountering plastic bottles far out towards the sea and of the increasing amount of plastic garbage that could be found out there. 

Fishermen repairing their net; behind them are mounds of plastic waste.

While conducting research on plastic pollution, I learned that about 46% of plastic in the sea is made up of abandoned fishing nets; so I eventually cut them short to ask about the nets. Large scale commercial fishing does not exist much in this part of the world and it came as no surprise to hear the fishermen reiterate this fact. The majority of the fishermen are fathers and sons who fish to feed their families and as such, they cannot afford to abandon their nets no matter how badly torn or damaged. All bad nets have to be repaired repeatedly because the families need to survive. But when they can be repaired no more, these nets are turned in to be up-cycled into others household goods -like scrubs- so that the families can use them for even longer. 

This was the only ray of hope for me. That at least, the fishermen were getting this part right. And while the trip itself was quite depressing, that was the key lesson I went away with; that it couldn’t possibly get any worse and there is hope that we can still fix this. 

This is Part I of a three-part series on plastic pollution in Africa. To be notified when Part II is published, sign up to our newsletter here.

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All images taken and supplied by author.

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