Article by Jacqueline Boivin and Dr. Ibrahim Issifu.
In some African countries, the rate of single-use plastic waste is increasing.
This single use plastic can come in the form of single-use sachets which are small plastic packets that contain various consumer products such as drinking water, shampoo and condiments. While these sachets offer convenience and affordability to consumers, their proliferation has created an environmental crisis with far-reaching consequences.
In the outlying areas of cities such as Lagos, Nigeria and Accra, Ghana and in other areas with poor access to drinking water, sachets are an easy and popular way for consumers to access treated water1.
Drinking water is scarce in these areas due to several factors. For example, 1) Economic reasons due to a lack of infrastructure, 2) physical scarcity as a byproduct of climate change, such as droughts and 3) other contributing factors such as population growth2.
In theory, these disposable sachets are a great idea, but in practice they are leading to large amounts of plastic waste. This plastic waste isn’t recyclable due to the use of a low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic that they’re made from3.
These sachets are also delivered to smaller communities by delivery truck. Individual vendors sell them by carrying over-head containers where they can distribute to individual consumers.
According to Dr. Ibrahim Issifu, a postdoctoral researcher at FERU (Fisheries Economics Research Unit), in the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at UBC: “these sachets are typically made from low-quality, non-biodegradable plastics that do not easily decompose. As a result, they accumulate in landfills, waterways, and even natural habitats, contributing to pollution and endangering wildlife”.
The other tier to the water sachets dilemma is consumer waste. This is due to the single-use, disposable nature of this product. This culture of single-use waste is promoted in part, by the look and feel of water sachet packaging. A study conducted by The Conversation found that only certain population segments were conscious of their environmental choices and read warning labels on the packages4. This plastic waste ends up in rivers and drainage systems. These systems become clogged and in turn, increase the risk for poor sanitation and exposure of citizens to raw sewage.
Dr. Issifu states: “these plastics often find their way into rivers and oceans, posing a significant threat to marine life. Marine animals mistake these small plastic fragments for food, leading to ingestion and entanglement, which can be fatal. Furthermore, the release of toxins during the breakdown of these sachets can contaminate soil and water sources, negatively affecting ecosystems and human health.”
He further adds: “There is clear evidence that these sachets end up blocking drainage and wastewater systems and provide a breeding ground for disease vectors such as mosquitos and tsetse flies. We need to embrace more environmentally clean, green friendly products especially those with more biodegradable fibres.”
According to the Conversation study, some potential solutions include: provision of litter bins, enforcement of beach sanitation rules and regulations, and introduction of sanitation beach guards. It is also recommended that there be “collaboration between regulatory bodies and the producers of sachet water to monitor improvements in labelling sachets”, continuing: “by implementing stricter regulations, fostering collaboration, and promoting education, we can transition from a sachet-dependent society to one that prioritizes the preservation of our precious ecosystems and the well-being of future generations.”