By Sallieu T. Kamara
To say that Sierra Leone is dirty now seems like flogging a dead horse. But because of its growing menace, more enquiring minds will continue to navigate this grimy sanitary situation of our environment, which has become not only a national disgrace, but an absolute national scandal as well. Despite its hazardous effects on the health and well-being of the nation, the frightening debris of rubbish that has become a permanent feature of the country, particularly in urban cities, continues to escape the eye and attention of people tasked with the responsibility to redress this grubby situation.
But since a lot of debate has been generated at different levels around this perennial issue, I will like to limit this article to the environmental and social impact of the use and disposal of plastic across the country. Since the introduction of water, packaged and sold in sachets, our cities and towns have been awash with the unsightly heaps of discarded plastic. The main streets and drainages of our cities and towns now appear to be the dumping ground for discarded plastic. And little effort is seen to be made by the designated authorities to arrest this growing environmental menace.
The roles are not clear here as to whose responsibility it is to ensure that the numerous water ‘purification’ companies that have sprung up in the country meet acceptable environmental protection standards. There are the local councils, the Ministries of Health and Sanitation and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as others such as the Sierra Leone Standards Bureau. By virtue of their mandates, all of these institutions have the responsibility to ensure that the people live in a safe and conducive environment. How they go about discharging this function is what many of us don’t really know.
The laws of Sierra Leone require corporate entities whose activities may likely cause some environmental and social impact to do an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment. This requirement is not only limited to mining companies, it covers a broad spectrum of corporate activities including construction and the production of ‘purified’ water for commercial purposes.
This is one of the criteria to be fully met for the issuance of a license to operate. The Environment Protection Agency has the sole responsibility to ensure compliance.
The main reason for undertaking this exercise even before a company starts operations, is to enable the company assess and know the potential hazards that its operations will cause on the people and the environment. The company will then use the information generated at this stage to develop a mitigation plan (environmental management plan). This plan will outline steps that the company will take to minimize the impacts/hazards of its operations on the people and the environment. In all of this, the people must be fully involved and their views taken onboard.
Did the water purification companies comply with this provision of the law before they started their operations? If the answer is yes, why is it that they are not putting their mitigation plan in operation to reduce the menacing sight of their discarded products and its effects on the health of the people? If, on the other hand, the answer is no, then why are they allowed to flout the rules?
This is where the institutional coordination and connectivity come in. The three institutions – city councils, Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Environmental Protection Agency- that have a leading stake in this must work together; they cannot continue to work in isolation of each other. This problem is being further compounded on a daily basis, as new companies are established to swell up the existing number.
Even the Ministry of Health and Sanitation or the local councils that have the responsibility to issue them licenses do not know precisely how many water companies are in the country. I stand to be corrected here.
Generally, plastics are durable and degrade very slowly. The chemicals that make plastics to be durable also make them to resist natural processes of degradation; they do not rot like other waste materials. Plastics that were discarded several years back are still littering the streets of our cities and towns. If you want to get what I am saying, go to Kroo Bay, Susan’s Bay, Mabella and Guard Street or simply observe the cleaning exercises to see the mountains of plastics that are coming out of our gutters. Can we imagine what the situation will be like in the next five years or so if no firm action is taken to reverse the trend?
We have seen many times during the rainy season discarded plastics blocking gutters and drainages resulting in serious flooding. At Kroo Bay and other places, such floodings have caused huge financial, material and psychological loss to hundreds of residents. Are they not Sierra Leoneans? Shouldn’t we protect them from further painful experiences of this nature?
We should also not be oblivious of the environment in which this water is produced. It has been reported many times in different media that some of the places where this plastic water is produced are very unhygienic. Even the water they ‘process’ and package is drawn from unclean and unsafe sources.
Before he died, the late deputy Minister of Health and Sanitation, Mohamed D. Koroma, went on a daring crusade to address this issue. He met strong resistance, though, but he was able to improve the situation to the admiration of many of his compatriots. But he died with his dream. Or so it seems.
Are we monitoring the way these plastics are being manufactured, the quantity of organic acids that are used in producing them? Or do we have mechanisms to ascertain the level of toxicity in these plastics? What about the level of environmental threat that the nurdles (the raw materials from which all plastics are made) pose? These are all issues that the mandated authorities must engage with all seriousness.
By way of proffering solutions, the three institutions mentioned above should all sit together and design an approach that will see them work collaboratively on this issue. First, let them do an audit to find out the exact number of water packaging companies that exist in the country and their level of production. This will equally determine the level of contributions each of these companies make towards destroying the environment. Simple logic dictates that the higher the production level, the greater the contributions towards the environmental damage.
Second, the companies must be made to do an environmental impact assessment and a corresponding environmental management plan. Those companies that have already done so must be made to comply with provisions of their mitigation plan. Also, the issue of companies providing lump sums of money on a regular basis-be it quarterly, half-yearly or yearly-based on individual production level should be given serious consideration. The monies should be deposited into a special account and used to contract private companies to effectively manage discarded plastics that are found in streets and other public places.
Third, the Environmental Protection Agency should support the local councils and the Ministry of Health and Sanitation to mainstream issues of environmental protection into their operational structures. Where they already exist, the EPA should help to strengthen and make them functional. This will help these institutions to better understand environmental issues and to ensure that due diligence is followed by all companies whose activities may likely cause significant adverse environmental and social impacts.
Fourth, the companies should explore the possibility of recycling discarded plastics without significantly reducing their quality. Once discarded plastics are recycled and used, they will not be allowed to litter the streets at the rate at which it is happening now. I am sure it will be cost effective as well, in addition to providing livelihood opportunities for many people across the country.
Fifth, users of all plastic products should be responsible enough to dispose of used plastics in a manner that the environment will not be adversely affected. This may require mass sensitization and education of citizens about the consequences of their actions. It could even be part of the environmental management plans of the corporate bodies.
Sixth, laws should be made by local and central governments that will place both the responsibility and liability for the proper disposal and non-disposal of plastics in the hands of the corporate bodies and the end users. These laws must be enforced regardless of who is involved. The Freetown City Council started in that direction when they came up with bye-laws that were aimed at keeping the city clean. This move received overwhelming commendation from the general public. But it suffered a near still birth.
There are many more other options that can be explored.
May I hasten to say that I am not in any way against the production and sale of plastic products to the general public. Rather, I am trying to draw attention to the environmental concerns, which the production, application and disposal of plastic products present. And in doing so, I do not want us to limit this discourse to the producers of water only. There are the producers of the mega-cola drinks, which are equally culpable. Together, they form the family of plastic producers in Sierra Leone.
We are concerned. And everybody else must be concerned because hundreds of thousands of tons of non-biodegradable plastic packages are thrown around every day by individuals and corporate users. Our beaches are inundated with plastic debris that is washed ashore. Plastics release pollutants such as nonylphenols and phthalates that are additives. These chemicals are added to the plastics during production and give the plastics different properties such as flexibility, durability and colour. The chemicals, which the plastics release, enter the environment straight away, whilst the additives contaminate the foods the plastics are designed to protect.
In disposing plastics, we are faced with a multitude of problems that also pose serious threats to human health and safety of the environment. If we decide to recycle used plastics as I recommend above, the quality and purity will be adversely affected. On the other hand, if we dispose of them through burning, we will be faced with the threat of dioxins – a deadly poison that plastics emit when burned.
With all these threats and hazards, is it not legally and morally justifiable for corporate bodies dealing in the production, application and disposal of plastics to do an impact assessment of their operations and a corresponding environmental plan to mitigate the sufferings of the people? For how long shall we continue to keep seal lips on an issue that has the potentials to cause devastating damage to the people of this country?
Certainly, the PEOPLE of this country have a case. And their case must be heard!