Globally, plastic waste has become one of the biggest threats to the environment because of its implications for ocean life, sanitation and human health.[1] Unfortunately, the rate at which the world is responding to this menace is not as fast as plastic waste is being generated. There is a seeming global concern demonstrated by dedicating days such as the ‘earth day’ and the ‘world environment day’ to increase awareness and call the world to action. However, plastic waste will continue to grow as urbanisation rates increase.[2]

Perhaps, the tendency here is that plastic waste is more likely to cause problems in contexts where population increase exists side by side with the limited capacity to recycle waste. Lagos, for instance, generates an estimated 821,250 tons of plastic waste annually – the largest in Nigeria – and while this volume is estimated to triple in the coming years, existing regulation and consciousness to take responsibility across sectors is selectively efficient.[3] Nevertheless, emerging evidence from LEAP Africa’s leadership and life skills intervention in Lagos – the iLEAD programme – shows that students are exercising leadership by thinking about these issues and are adapting methods to recycle plastic waste.

As part of their community change project, iLEAD students from the 2017/18 cohort in Gbaja Boys Senior High School were keen on addressing the issue of sanitation within their school and immediate community. Their initial idea was to conduct a sanitation exercise and purchase waste bins to be placed in key locations within their school and the community. But after considering a few other ideas, their conversations pointed them in a direction to make considerations around ‘using waste to solve waste’. This meant modifying their idea to ensure that the solution they were introducing would have lasting impact on the community. From their research, they realised that PET[4] plastic bottles were responsible for the blockage of the drainage and sewage systems within their community leading to sanitation issues and health challenges. In the attempt to tackle these locally, people within the community often resort to burning plastic waste, but from their analysis this had implications for air quality (air pollution).

In order to develop a better strategy, the students were taken through a process that challenged them to think about their change project idea in a way that will encourage people to act responsibly; one that is shaped by an understanding that the actions of today have implications for people’s lives and the planet more broadly. Consequently, the iLEAD students resorted to the internet to glean ideas of how other societies were thinking about the issue of plastic waste. From these, they saw how recycled plastic waste was used to produce building and construction materials. The students then adapted these ideas and settled to turn plastic waste into waste bins.

The students began by conducting a sanitation exercise within the community and then used the opportunity to bring together waste plastic bottles. Afterwards, they washed the bottles and structured them into waste bin shapes of different sizes. This activity attracted the interest of students and teachers whose encouragement was a significant motivation for these students. Upon completion, the students alongside their teachers presented the ‘plastic bottle bins’ to the principals in their school as well as neighbouring schools which was well received. Principals in the schools they presented the bins to were intrigued at how the students were able to come up with the idea and endorsed the use of these bins within the school community. Since that time, the ‘plastic bottle bins’ have remained a fascinating concept to its users with neighbouring schools adopting similar methods to manage plastic waste within their own schools. The extent to which this gesture has improved sanitation within schools or impacted the culture of waste disposal in unclear. However, what is clear is that these students have demonstrated leadership, having introduced an idea that has been accepted by their colleagues and teachers, indicating a solution to a need that was dimly sensed.[5]

An important lesson here is that leadership and life skills training provide a useful entry point in mainstreaming Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) as means to helping young people develop the knowledge, skills, values and behaviours imperative for a sustainable planet. The gesture of the iLEAD students is a pointer to this fact and draws our attention to the imperative that schools will need to adopt participatory teaching and learning methods that motivates and empower learners to think and act on the SDGs, which will in turn promote the development of skills – such as creativity, critical thinking skills, problem solving skills and entrepreneurship skills – relevant for the next phase of their lives.

 

[1] MacArthur, D. E., Waughray, D., and Stuchtey, M. R. (2016, January). The New Plastics Economy, Rethinking the Future of Plastics. In World Economic Forum.

[2] Sonia Madaan (Online). What is Plastic Pollution? Earth Eclipse. Available at: https://www.eartheclipse.com/environment/environmental-effects-plastic-pollution.html

[3] Caleb Ojewale (2019). Plastic Waste Chokes Lagos Despite Potential Billion Naira Recyling Industry, Business Day, January 3. Available at: https://businessday.ng/businessday-investigation/article/plastic-waste-chokes-lagos-despite-potential-billion-naira-recycling-industry/

[4] PET – Polyethylene Terephthalate

[5] Murphy, Albert (2011), ‘A Study of the leadership Process’. In Pierce, Jon and Newstrom, John (Eds.) Leaders and the Leadership Process, 6th Edition, New York: McGraw Hill.

 

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