Promoting an Active Recycling Culture in Nigeria
Somewhere on my list of culture shocks on arriving in Canada several years ago is the recycling culture in the country. In every public institution, in every private establishment, in every household, waste categorization was commonplace. After dropping the Sprite can in the general waste bin a couple of times and being immediately told that there was another bin separate for cans, I began to ask questions. This was very novel to me. In this part of the world, it seemed to me everyone was environmentally conscious. And so when campaigns emerged proclaiming to be working for the good of the environment, people lent an ear because they understood. Climate change was real.
The term “climate change” might cause us to see the climate as an independent actor which changes at will or to interpret change as being largely innocuous and inevitable. But when people are actively sorting out their waste in their homes, they realize that their actions have an effect on the climate. In the absence of altruistic motives, sanctions have helped people understand that the decomposition of solid waste in the environment can lead to the release of methane into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. And in the very act of recycling, the individual understands that making products from recycled waste rather than virgin materials is cheaper, consumes less energy and is much better for the environment. This sound indoctrination in society forms the basis for active lobbying against irresponsible and environmentally disadvantageous policies of corporations. It forms the basis for government action when enlightened citizens become government officials. But this is not the case where I was coming from.
To be fair, Canada and my home country Nigeria are as similar as they are different: two countries with different economies and different industrial and developmental capacities- the former with a population of 33 million and the latter with a population of 150 million. While the sorting and recycling practice is a ubiquitous practice in the former, it is not in the latter. To be sure, recycling also happens in Nigeria but it is largely relegated to the informal economy. Thus, people with no alternative source of employment take to the refuse dumps, sort out recyclable material and sell them on the waste market to waste buyers. There aren’t on the dumpsite because they understand environmental processes and are working hard to reverse the impending doom. On the contrary, this way of innovation is practical and is a small-scale boom for them. It puts food on their tables and sustains them. In the classic Nigerian saying, they understand that no condition is permanent: that one day, they would be propelled from the dumps to high ground. And they would never look back.
Against the call for an all-hands-on-deck approach towards waste disposal and recycling, people have argued that a campaign of that nature might be harmful to the informal waste economy by robbing people of much-needed jobs. However, because a campaign of this nature seeks to emphasize the importance of this sector, the opposite is more likely to hold. With active government investment in the recycling economy and regulation of the sector, people stand the chance of gaining more permanent jobs- as educators, as regulators, as skilled recyclers in factories, as more potent buyers and sellers of recyclable waste. This move will differ from the common practice of “creating jobs” in that the government will be investing in a sector that will add value to the economy by saving the economy billions of Naira. And even though large corporations might be hurt by this move, it will cause them to be more responsible and to adjust their policies in favour of the common good.
The present stigma attached to waste management and recycling reveals the disconnect between the average Nigerian and their waste. Some have dismissed the climate change agenda as a Western agenda and others, worried about the costs and benefits, have asked “na climate change we go chop?” And yet as reality has shown, climate change continues to connect us all and if unchecked, will eventually rob us all. Therefore, in order to turn that connection into a beneficial one, we must change our cultural practices. We must create incentives where none previously exist. In that virtuous reinforcing cycle, we must teach our children to sort out their waste, explaining the rationale behind doing so. Socialized children and leaders will then be able to push for more government regulation and more government investment in recycling machinery and training recycling personnel. As the government and private sector provide more differentiated waste bins and actively categorize waste at dump sites, the socialization continues to deepen, positioning every member of the society to take further action against climate change. Farmers, fishermen, women, engineers, everyday citizens will come to understand how climate change affects them and will be better positioned to seek out appropriate solutions to overcome climate change challenges they are facing in their various fields. The nature and effect of climate change still remains largely unknown and thus this new culture will inspire more research in academia, producing findings that will benefit all sectors of the economy.
A socialization of this nature will get every member of the society working hard to reduce their carbon footprints. Schools and institutions will disseminate information. Public transit systems will hopefully become more efficient and a viable alternative for commuters. Stores will provide more incentives for people to reuse their shopping bags. And as this memo reaches everyone, the stigma of waste management will be transformed into pride. Waste management will be regarded as a bonafide activity, an activity that is owned by everyone; a sphere in which all can participate, knowing fully well it is our collective responsibility to protect our environment.
And so the next time I’m home, I will continue this newly acquired habit of mine-a product of this new indoctrination I have received. At the next wedding, I will not throw my bottle in the jollof rice or egusi soup waste bag and will have an answer ready when asked why I have created a separate bag for bottles. This is a small step but change has to start with us. And it all starts from not throwing the plastic out with the soup water.
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