Nigeria is officially the poorest country on earth, bar the Democratic Republic of Congo. With 70 million poor out of barely 200 million people, that is 35% of the entire population. In DR Congo, the estimate is about 55% of their population. Both countries are seeing increased poverty on a per-second basis if we are to go by the data from World Poverty Clock, and indeed any other measurements. India has the largest sheer number at 73 million, but that number easily gets lost in their 1.3 billion population. Not that it is justifiable for anyone to be poor though.
Sometime back I got involved in the recycling business because of my love for a clean environment. I created an NGO and tried to build some activities by helping to recycle plastics which are blocking drainages, and water channels and polluting everywhere in Nigeria. Plastics, PET (polyethylene terephthalate), nylons, and every other non-biodegradable materials are all over Nigeria and are even eating into some of our farmlands, but no one is raising a question. These items do not degrade for at least 200 years. But if the environmental issues are so dire, it is even more depressing that these things are money left lying everywhere and causing health and other hazards for us. And so because of my experience, these days, when I take a simple stroll down any street, anywhere in Nigeria, I see money lying everywhere. Yet our people say they are poor. And the government is not incentivizing them to think differently. I know that indeed the private sector alone can drive such things at a commercial level, but a matter of life and death must not be left to the private sector by any responsible government.
Let us do some math.
1 kg of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is mostly used for bottled water and soft drinks, goes for at least N30. Just collect it in a bag and go to any recycling plant or aggregator. No bargaining. No discounting. Collect 20kg (which could be like 200 to 300 bottles) and that is like N600. Some very poor mothers are using this to raise whole families and send children to school right now, but we need many more to get involved. After all our villages, towns, and cities are drowning in PET and plastic.
Now, plastics are a different ballgame. Real plastic is GOLD. The cover of the PET bottles is of plastic material. Those ones are separated and sold differently. They are in hot demand and their price per kg is like 8 to 10 times that of PET. They don’t last one day at the recycling plant. They are often sorted into different colors and crushed. Engine oil plastic cans and broken jerrycans are plastic too. There seems to be a global scarcity. Even the demands of the PET market could never be satisfied. Locally and internationally, they are recycled into things like plastic chairs, the famous ‘Ghana-must-go’ bags, mats, clothing, construction materials, tennis balls, automotive parts, protective and industrial packaging and so many more. Some companies here are large accumulators and processors for international markets, especially in China. Those ones have customers abroad and earn dollars. They are often foreign-owned companies. A Nigerian friend in the recycling space, Philip Obuesi, shared information from his German clients with me, which gave a hint of the kind of price that can be commanded at the international level:
“Our price is 500 Euros per tonne including shipping to Germany. Unsorted. 10 Containers X 20 ton = 200 X 500 is 100,000 euro per month X 12 month is a million euros guarantee income.”
I got involved in this industry and contributed my bit to the clean-up of the environment for a spell. I closed down the business which employed an average of 50 people – mostly women who help us in sorting the bottles – separated into colors and categories plus removing the plastic covers and labels (labels are a different material and so a different market entirely), because the final off-takers in Lagos (mostly Indian companies) under-priced our final products and the cost of transport from Abuja to Lagos was killing us. Also, the area where our factory was located became rapidly developed with nice houses everywhere and our machines were making noise. I wouldn’t give what I wouldn’t take. Lastly, we had some major issues with electricity in that area and the cost of fixing that would have been a major setback.
I think the government should incentivize that sector and link it with cleaning up our environment. All these vagrant Nigerians should be encouraged to collect plastics and take them to recyclers and get some token from govt for that. This is money on the streets. Rather than go around ‘dashing’ free money to poor people as the government says it has been doing (tradermoni, marketmoni, SIP, etc), they could link the palliatives with environmental awareness and clean-ups and achieve magic. And the cleaner our streets are, the more respect we get from foreigners. The saner our streets are, the higher the investments and tourism we get from everywhere – foreigners and our diasporans alike. I think another solution is to encourage Nigerians to set up SMEs that can produce some of the products mentioned above in every capital city so that recycling companies are saved the huge cost of transport (a trailer load of say 20 tonnes costs at least N400,000 to transport from Abuja to Lagos and so throw the profit expectations out of keel as this is another N20 – N30 per kilogram. Also, the measurements from the source and at a destination is always short, killing the recycler). Still, this is an essential, logical, ethical, and sustainable business if a few parameters are tweaked.
Anyone observing Nigeria will wonder what is wrong with us upstairs. It is innate. Many people may be dying of hunger but swear that lailai they can never pick up plastics to sell for food. Many of those maibolas are rich as a result though but this is a matter of national emergency. What maibolas collect is less than 10% of our plastic and PET usage. The rest clog our drainages and pollute our waters and land where they will not degrade until 250 years. We get into first-class planes and hustle to Switzerland and France to go and discuss climate change when we stupidly cannot do simple things and clean up our a-holes after taking a crap. Nigeria generates 42 million tonnes of plastics annually. So, do the math in terms of revenue potential and the environmental hazard we have brought on ourselves. Most states in Nigeria have no recycling plants whatsoever. We are all busy chasing federal allocations.
To run a small processing company as I did, with a crusher or two, and a baler, you will need an investment of say $15,000 in machines, a land – very tricky as the land/location must not be too remote and must not cause a nuisance in the city – some small building/cabin as office and a platform for your machines, plus a few million as working capital to purchase materials and pay workers
Let us look at how much money Nigerians have left on the street. Just walking down an average street in any urban Nigerian city, you could see with your eyes without trying, as much as 100kg to 1,000kg of PET and plastics of all sorts. Remember that we only recycle about 10% presently and the dumpsites are full of them. Also, the few initiatives where people can earn from sorting their wastes or where poor folks can pay school fees with bottles have not quite taken off. The whole of Nigeria is filthy. So, at a price of say N30 per kilo, that amounts to between N30,000 to N300,000. If there are as many as 10,000 streets in a state, that is between N300 million to N3 billion on the streets and in the waterways and gutters, lying fallow. Replicated all over the nation, that is potentially N11.1 billion to N111 billion just lying on the streets of Nigeria and not only lying on the streets, giving us a bad reputation as a mindless, dirty people who cannot clean up after themselves and thus chasing away tourists, investors and our diasporans who could have inflowed another $100 billion to $200 billion yearly if they were prouder of their country. Do you see how people ruin themselves? And if the Broken Windows Theory is anything to go by, the filth on the streets encourages crimes, decadence, corruption, and brigandage of all sorts because it just shows that nobody is in control of society. We need to urgently get organized. The private sector is a lynchpin here but government policy to enforce cannot be done without it. Our people’s thinking must change, by force, by fire as they say on the streets.