The Cleaner Lagos Initiative: Lagos’ Hope For A Cleaner Future

The topic of dealing with waste is not new to any society and the history behind how major developed countries have dealt with theirs when the time came is quite amusing. To give an example, Japan was one of those countries who was taking giant strides towards industrialisation in the early 1900s. The understandable amounts of waste that follow the wake of ambition’s progress became a huge problem. The streets in richer, more industrialised areas of Japan especially, were perpetually stacked with mounds of refuse; when it rained the messes made their ways into water channels polluting sources of domestic water for many; the areas smelled terribly and generally looked very unsightly. For the government in charge at that time, when faced with the challenge of dealing with these issues, took a curious approach as they chose to inform the citizen that waste lying in the streets was evidence of progress and rather than crying foul while complaining about it, residents be more open to the waste in their surrounding and embrace it. The people of the old days thought a lot different than we do today and to say Japan has indeed come a very long way since those days cannot be an understatement. In present reality, Japan has enacted some of the most stringent pollution and environmental control laws that exist on the planet today and they stand proudly reaping benefits from healthcare to tourism, resource management and energy security.

Lagos, as by far Nigeria’s single most populated state, having claimed the prestigious award as one of the dirtiest cities in the world with a populace spitting out some 15,000 tonnes of solid waste daily seems to have reached that point in her history that one might call her “waste time” and it was in response to that, the Lagos State Government, thankfully and wisely so, choosing not to mirror the decision of old Japan, launched the Cleaner Lagos Initiative as a holistic strategy to creating a lasting system of waste management within the state. One that effectively invalidates the present denotation and idea of “waste”, effectively transforming it into a resource.

In environmental management, there exists a concept called the “waste hierarchy”. This, in a simple pyramidal diagram, describes in order of preference, the different ways of dealing with waste. First and most preferably comes reducing at the source. Usually a responsibility levelled to manufacturers, the idea is simple: if an object or a material is bound to end up being discarded, then reducing the amount of substance required in making said material inherently reduces the amount of the material likely to be disposed. Examples of these can be seen when the bottles of Coca Cola for example is considered in respect of how heavy the older bottles used to be compared with the weight as of today. Secondly, there is reusing which quite simply advocates for using given materials multiple times to serve related purposes. Examples of these can be seen with plastic water bottles, nylon bags, etc. Third comes recycling and compared with the wide acclaim it has garnered over the years, it might come as a bit of a surprise to most that recycling is third on the list of the best ways to treat waste. Under the precepts of recycling, a material is used either as a starting point or as a composite ingredient in making a new, sometimes different material. Some examples would be the recycling of plastic bottles, aluminium cans, used paper, car parts, tyres etc. For those wondering about the difference between reuse and recycle, an easy way to differentiate is the amount of energy used in repurposing the material in question. Take plastic water bottles which can both be reused and recycled, the integral difference lies in the fact that to reuse the water bottle, all one needs do is probably give it a little rinse. To recycle on the other hand, is an energy intensive industrial process beginning with collection, cleaning it up and getting it back into shape to be refilled and repackaged. Fourth on the list is incineration with energy recovery which basically burns the refuse as a fuel for producing usable heat or electricity – waste to energy, if you will. Finally, and most environmentally damaging comes landfilling which happens to be quite popular in Lagos particularly and also sometimes quite ineffective as a mechanism of dealing with waste. Landfills are particularly dangerous as they serve as breeding grounds for a host of disease bearing rodents (rats and Lassa fever) and pathogens that affect humans; they produce toxic and filthy leachate which percolates and pollutes underground aquifers; contaminate the air with bad odours which can span miles; their risk of spontaneous combustion leave them as exposed fire hazards and they produce methane which is a greenhouse gas that promotes global warming. Examples of landfills can be seen on the LASU Ojo Road towards Igando.

The Waste Treatment Pyramid

In reality today, the means of dealing with waste in ways that are both economical, effective and environmentally responsible, while falling into the boundaries of the already stated concepts in the waste hierarchy, are legion. These range from sophisticated processes of recycling to entirely repurposing material for use in totally different spheres. Other examples would include the production and adoption of biodegradable materials especially for use in packaging and other largely biochemical processes like enzymatic decomposition used sometimes in treating plastics and other organic wastes like machine oils. Lagos is not the first state with the population it boasts to face such problems. Popular cities around the world and many of them choice tourist destinations like London, Paris and Beijing have had to deal with the problem of managing solid waste in recent times. Before any forward thinking waste management reform comes into effect, there have to be a few things set down first and this is even before the provision of adequate infrastructure, sensitisation and funding concerns are addressed.

First, the issue of legislation supporting the reforms has to be put in place. In other words, there have to be actual laws structured to discourage the irresponsible disposal and mistreatment of waste (the government has to make it illegal to be dirty) and then, specific bodies have to be charged with the ordeal of collection and processing of waste within the city or the different areas that make it up. With regards to the CLI, in 2017 Lagos State’s Gov. Ambode signed into law an audacious Lagos State Environmental Management Act which laid down the legislative framework for the management of solid waste within the state. While it was christened as an environmental management act, this comes off as a bit of a misnomer because of all the aspects concerned within the field of environmental management, only waste management was paid any attention and even less so, it centred almost exclusively on municipal solid waste (MSW) and to a lesser extent, commercial waste. However, comparable with the 1956 Clean Air Act that was propounded by the British Parliament as decisive action against coal fuelled air pollution in England, this did form the foundational basis for which the initiative was structured to work and also importantly, reflected the political will to effectively see that the problem of waste management is systematically and effectively dealt with.

Secondly, the playing field that transforms the task of keeping the cleanliness of the city has to be developed into a system that sees it become a business entity on its own, well capable of self-sustenance. This is where the wonders of innovation that have made waste management into the global industry that it has grown to become with countries like China, Sweden and Finland being so well developed that these countries have become importers of waste for the value that their efficiencies of recycling provide. While the adoption of the first two points along the hierarchy: reducing and reusing, may be encouraged using tools like public sensitisation and education on the advantages they offer, research has revealed that one of the most prominent factors affecting the practise as well as the efficiency of recycling is the local in which the recycling facility is situated. This also supports a cogent supposition that the specific method or practise of waste management is dependent on the location that may be involved. In essence and as a hypothetical, a recycling plant in Apapa may have a higher degree of efficiency dealing with recycling steel using the same materials and methods as another in Ejigbo or Mushin, while the Mushin plant may become a regional super-power in recycling other materials like aluminium or glass. The business model that supports the success of the venture inherently plays out to a very large extent as an expression of how efficiently the waste treatment facilities operate and this makes it an issue of utmost importance to be considered. Related to the issue of the business environment, would also be other issues such as the pricing mechanisms and bill collection from private and public waste producers.

Furthermore, beyond the measures of political interference, able bodies have to be provided with the resources and charged with the responsibility of effectively dealing with the waste issue at hand; this is where the Visionscape Group comes in. And finally, there has to be unbiased dedication from the citizens of the state towards the mandate of keeping its environs clean. As such, renewed vigour is to be expected from state environmental law enforcement groups as they aim to sanitise the state by doing their part to ensure that irresponsible waste disposal is curbed and adequate punishment is given out to eventually aberrant parties.

Having established the political will to create a profitable and in time, sustainable enterprise from the responsibility of cleaning up Lagos, as well as having invested in the intellectual resources to ensure that an aspiration towards the best and only the best available practices are employed, keeping in mind that these practices also have, to a substantive degree, proactively protect the welfare and health of the Lagosian populace as well as the resources and environmental aspects (air, land and water) involved, one might argue that the outlook for the CLI is generally leaning toward the positive. Additionally, the mobilisation of capable management and infrastructure would support the previous statements. Unfortunately, the reality of real progress remains highly contestable probably even outright wrong. While much of the acclaim that has surrounded the CLI broke a majority of the public consciousness around the later parts of 2017 till date, it might surprise many to know that the CLI was developed closer to 2015 than it was to even 2017. Still, mountains of refuse continue to plague Lagos and its environs at a particularly unfortunate period where, coupled with the on-going onslaught of Lassa Fever, the situation adds up to a potential powder keg; a rodent borne epidemic time bomb waiting patiently to explode.

The task of refuse collection and processing is being majorly handed over to the Visionscape Group after being stripped off the previous partnership between the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and the Private Sector Participants (PSP) outfits they worked with. The Visionscape Group itself, boasting advanced resources and technical ability, which has been proven in their contribution to the handling of municipal solid waste in Dubai, seems like an organisation that is up to the task of managing Lagos’ waste problem. However, the LASG’s seeming objective to create a monopoly in a potential billion-dollar market while exposing the final consumers to unchecked pricing mechanisms obviously is motive for friction between the previous stakeholders and the new regime. According to some reports, assets were systematically and perhaps even illegally being taken off LAWMA and vested on Visionscape. Some others even infer that the partnership with the Visionscape Group might probably be one of the biggest corruption and money laundering schemes to have come out of the side of the country in a very long time. For any underlying truths as far as this setup goes, one supposes that time alone would reveal. While these three elephants continue to fight, the expectation of a resultant harvest of suffering for the common people becomes a reality as in addition to the already ubiquitous mounds of trash that line the streets, the PSPs carry out their brand of protests by filling compactor trucks with refuse gotten from dump sites and using the payloads in blocking off roads, estate entrances, etc. The situation is tricky as it stands. The PSPs and LAWMA together have proven to be ineffective as they have made very little progress in their efforts over the years. Collection routines, delivery of bill and revenue generation have been highly irregular and inconsistent and this also combines with the fact that the practices that they employ are obsolete and impractical in the modern day sense; they contribute more to environmental degradation and add very little value to the society. On the other hand, the issue of jobs lost and the uncertain transition period between the old and the new regime are also of concern as the state abdicates the non-profit LAWMA in favour of the profit oriented private Visionscape Group which would also ultimately translate to higher waste collection bills on the part of the residents.

The present reality notwithstanding, there might be exciting times ahead as we look forward to seeing Lagosians learn and put into practice the values of reducing, reusing and recycling and a renewed vision towards managing waste. The ideological changes that the adoption of the practise might herald within domestic and commercial settings might also be noteworthy. The aptness of this statement is beyond any contention as even before politics and the infrastructure gets set up, there has to be an ideological shift within the consciousness of the people regarding the way waste is treated within their surroundings; the success of the Cleaner Lagos Initiative begins first with a cleaner Lagosian. It is to be expected that the LASG would begin sensitising its residents on separating recyclables from non-recyclable waste if the purpose of dual collection bins which is also to be expected, would not be ultimately defeated. The politics, as one of the strongest deterrents to the actualisation of the initiative, will drag on for a while longer until a three-way compromise is reached or a common ground is found but meanwhile, the eventual cleaner Lagos, the dream tourist attraction, the bustling city seeking to eke out a place as a marker of innovation and sustainable development in the continent still remains little more but a dream. The CLI is more of an ambitious and an auspicious measure whose effects would become apparent in the long-term. For now and for the near future anyway, Lagos would still remain well… Lagos.

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