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Upcycling the used plastic that clogs Nigeria’s waterways

Words: Olatunji Olaigbe

Photos: Mayowa Adebo & Getty Images

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The plastic sachets used to package drinking water in Nigeria are polluting the country’s waterways and contributing to floods. But one designer has a plan to turn them into something beautiful.

In Ilorin, Nigeria, Adediji Sherifat sells groceries from her shop. In front of the shop is a large drainage gutter, and every time it rains, the water brings waste from across the city, clogging the drain. The water overflows, into the shop. “Happens almost everytime it rains, and I pay the price, everytime,” says Sherifat.

Elsewhere in Nigeria, someone – perhaps even Sherifat herself – buys a plastic sachet of water, drinks it, and throws away the single-use package. That package, carried by wind and rain, will soon find its way to a drain, like the one outside Sherifat’s shop.

Plastic water packages everywhere

These half-litre sachets of drinking water, known as “pure water”, are sold in street shops, in supermarkets, and by roadside vendors. An estimated 39% of Nigerians still do not have access to basic water facilities, so having access to cheap, clean water in a handy package is important.

Adejoke Lasisi with school bags made from plastic and textile waste. Photo: Mayowa Adebo

Nigerians consume between 50 and 60 million sachets of pure water daily. But as well as providing the most accessible form of drinkable water, the packages, or nylons as they are known, are the country’s leading source of plastic pollution. And if you wanted to design a product to block drains, you could hardly do it better.

Over 130,000 tons of plastic makes its way into Nigeria’s water bodies every year, putting the country among the top 20 contributors to marine debris globally. This summer Lagos recorded some of the worst flooding in years, and plastic pollution, together with climate change, is one of the culprits. Early this year Nigeria’s environment ministry launched an action plan on plastic waste management, but there’s little sign yet of the promised action.

Giving life to plastic waste

Adejoke Lasisi is a fashion designer determined to get rid of some of that plastic waste, and turn it into something beautiful. “Nigerians consume pure water, and just throw the nylon over their shoulders – sometimes without finishing the water in it,” she says.

“It’s the kind of waste that has no life beyond the moment the water is drunk. I want to give it life”

Adejoke Lasisi

It’s frustrating, because plastic drinks bottles in Nigeria are widely reused as containers for locally-made drinks, soap, cooking oil or engine oil. “But not pure water nylon,” said Lasisi. “It’s the kind of waste that has no life beyond the moment the water in it is drunk. I want to give it life.”

As a child in the 1990s, Lasisi was familiar with the practice of pouring waste into waterways. “My mother would ask us to pour the waste into the gutter every time it rained, knowing, or perhaps hoping that the water current would carry it off. But most times, dirt that other people poured into the gutter network would end up stuck in front of our own shop.” Lasisi and her siblings would then have to push the waste on using sticks, after which the dirt would gather in front of the next shop, and then that person would have to push it on, too. “And then it struck me that we all wanted clean surroundings, but didn’t care where all the dirt ended up, as long as it wasn’t with us. My environmental consciousness began there and then.”

The Planet 3R team collecting waste plastic in Ibadan. Photo: Mayowa Adebo

Plastic keeps piling up

But it was when she returned to her hometown of Ibadan after studying for an economics degree, that the scale of the plastic problem hit home for Lasisi. As she worked on starting up a weaving business, the waste just kept piling up. “The plastic problem wasn’t going anywhere – in fact it got bigger.”

So she started Planet 3R (the three Rs are reduce, reuse, recycle). The award-winning business converts plastic and textile waste – especially water packaging – into fashion items like bags, shoes, clothing, and anything else they can think of. It’s a modern business that’s also right at home in Ibadan, a city with a long history of textiles and weaving.

“Planet 3R is my intersection between sustainability, my roots, and empowerment”

Adejoke Lasisi

“For me, Planet 3R is my intersection between environmental sustainability, my roots, and empowerment,” says Lasisi.

Planet 3R is one of the very few organisations in Nigeria that specifically targets pure water nylons. This type of plastic is much cheaper to produce than recycle, and factories keep on producing it without much concern for where it ends up. While Planet 3R recycles around 140 pieces of pure water nylon per product, it’s still far from the 60 million sachets of pure water that Nigerians consume daily.

A woman removes water from her house in Lagos after a flood in summer 2020. Floods are getting more common in the city, and blocked drains are a contributing factor. Photo: Adeyinka Yusuf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The wide availability of plastic waste does not convert into efficient harvest methods for Planet 3R. Working with this type of plastic sometimes means “going around and picking up waste that, although available, isn’t necessarily gathered in one place.” To tackle this problem, Lasisi and her team distributed bins across Ibadan specifying which type of waste should be disposed of in them, but they ended up getting filled with all myriads of things instead.

There’s also the need for technology that can speed up the recycling process and make it cheaper, and eventually more accessible to the public.

A local solution to a local problem

“My dream is that we can get this replicated across diverse communities. It’s a solution that tackles a sizable chunk of the environmental crisis, and I just wish it to be replicated in as many places as possible,” said Lasisi. Planet 3R consistently hosts training sessions teaching women and children their recycling process. The organisation has hosted training sessions in different communities in Nigeria and other African countries.

“I’ve realised that no one will come save us from this crisis.” It’s local people who understand the environmental problems, and can fix them, Lasisi believes – if they have the tools to do so. She wants foreign organisations to partner with local organisations on the ground. “The key to making change lies in our roots.”

Main photo of Adejoke Lasisi by Mayowa Adebo

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