Sacha Journal of Environmental Studies Volume 2 Number 1 (2012) pp ISSN (Print) ISSN (Online)

Sacha Journal of Environmental Studies tudies Volume 2 Number 1 (2012) pp. 81-94 ISSN 2045-8479 (Print) ISSN 2045-8487 (Online) ...
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Sacha Journal of Environmental Studies tudies Volume 2 Number 1 (2012) pp. 81-94 ISSN 2045-8479 (Print) ISSN 2045-8487 (Online)


Department of Chemistry, Mekelle University, Mekelle, Ethiopia ABSTRACT In many developing countries such as Ethiopia, most people show little regard for the environment resulting in pollution. Lack of awareness coupled with poverty motivated people to reuse the non biodegradable plastic water bottles and bags. Poor waste disposal mechanism cause environment worse and encircled living organisms at risk. Reusing plastic materials with poor cleaning system result leaching of chemical pollutants, such as bisphenol A, phthalates and antimony that causes serious toxicological toxicolog impacts on humans and reduce the aesthetic values of the environment. Annually, over 23 million plastic water bottles and bags are consumed in Tigray. Most plastic materials are reused and end up in the solid waste stream. Now, plastic materials constitute const the biggest challenge to solid waste management in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray and home to more than 215 thousand people. Poor handling, reusing and disposal of plastic waste, which are major causes of environmental pollution, becomes carcinogenic to human, breeding grounds for pathogenic organisms, the spread of infectious diseases and loss of environmental aesthetics. This study examines the adverse impacts of reusing plastic water bottles and bags on people and the environment; and initiates the governments and municipalities at a regional and national level to change consumers’ behaviour regarding plastic materials in line with their sustainable waste management’s. Creating awareness through education among communities coupled with improving access to solid plastic waste management will help to achieve sound public and environmental health in Mekelle, Tigray. Keywords: Environment, nvironment, Plastic Materials, Toxicology, Waste Management anagement. 1.


The typical, everyday habits of most people give little regard for the environment and result in increased pollution and other negative environmental consequences (Albino ( et al. 2009; Andrady 2011; Cassells and Lewis 2011; Moore 2008; Torres et al. 2011; Wabnitz and Nichols 2010; Yamashita and Tanimura 2007). ). This indifference raises concern among environmentalists and has become particularly serious in developing countries such as Ethiopia. Some environmentalists state that despite recycling efforts, millions of plastic bags and water bottles take decades es or centuries to decompose. Plastics are used throughout the world for a broad number of applications. However, there are many environmental concerns associated 81

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with its use. The fact that plastic is durable means it degrades slowly. In addition, burning plastic can sometimes result in toxic fumes (Boettner et al. 1973; Forbid et al. 2011; Fu and Kawamura 2010; Valavanidis et al. 2008). Aside from trying to eliminate waste plastic, its production is also costly to the environment. It takes large amounts of chemical pollutants to create plastic, as well as significant amounts of fossil fuels. Although Plastic activists argue that, plastic bags can be reused, all plastic materials find their way to landfills. Hence this is not a robust defense when it comes to the environment (Alston and Arnold 2011; Pruter 1987; Saquing et al. 2010). Currently, there is a boom of plastic material production of mainly polyethylene, polystyrene, polyvinylchloride and polypropylene. Common polyethylene products include jugs, bottles, buckets, plastic bags and packaging film with plastic bags and bottles representing the largest growth area of all plastic industries (Doria 2006; Pruter 1987; Moore et al. 2001). Plastic water bottles are often used as an easy way to drink water on the go and plastic bags are given by retailers to their customers because they are cheap, strong, lightweight, functional, as well as a clean and hygienic means of carrying goods. Unfortunately, such products are one of the main sources of pollution (Adane and Muleta 2011). For example, it is common to find countless plastic materials washed ashore, which poses a serious problem to the natural environments. Plastic takes much longer to decompose than many other types of garbage that is typically thrown away. Consumption of plastic similar to production shows an exponential increase with more plastics being produced in the first decade of the present century than in the entire preceding century (Bowmer and Kershaw 2010; Thompson et al. 2009 a, b; 2011). The increase in numbers of plastic industries and subsequently discarding the wastes by consumers has only resulted in making the environment worse and encircled living organisms in danger. Plastics are extremely diverse in terms of chemical composition, properties and possible applications, and are widely distributed in the society and the environment. While annual production and use statistics are not available from industry sectors, environmental groups estimate that between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used globally each year (CBC News 2007). Several of the chemicals used to produce plastics are hazardous for human health and the environment (Lithner et al. 2011; Tinnerberg and Mattsson 2008; Van Rooij et al. 2008). Besides the sheer number of plastic bags and bottles produced each year, the energy required to manufacture and transport these bottles to market severely drains limited fossil fuels. For example, bottled water companies, due to their unregulated use of valuable resources and their production of billions of plastic bottles have presented a significant strain on the environment. WWF Report (2001) suggested that water bottles be washed and reused in order to lessen their negative impact on the environment. Unfortunately, reusing plastic bags and bottles further compromises the quality of the water due to leaching of more and more hazardous chemicals into water; such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, antimony and other organic contaminants as the bottle gets older (Andra et al. 2011; Earth Talk 2012; Schmid et al. 2008, Widen et al. 2005; 2012). Studies have indicated that food and drinks stored in such containers can contain trace amount of BPA, a synthetic chemical that interferes with the body’s natural hormonal messaging system. The same studies found that repeated re-use of such bottles, which get dinged up through normal wear and tear and while being washed, increases the chance that chemicals will leak out of the tiny cracks and crevices that develop over time (Groff 2010; Huang et al. 2011; Lang et al. 2008; Lee et al. 2008; Oehlmann et al. 2008; Rubin et al. 2001; Sajiki 2001; Sajiki and Yonekubo 2004; Vandenberg et al. 2007; Woodruff et al. 2010). Other studies also indicated that a toxic chemical, phthalates, also leaches from plastic material containers which affects living organisms (Al-Saleh et al. 2011; Chen et al. 2008; Heudorf et al. 2007; Martino-Andrade and Chahoud 2010; Montuori et al. 2008; Sajiki and Yonekubo 2003; Schettler 2006; Wagner and Oehlmann 2009; 2011). Antimony is regulated as a drinking water contaminant because it may cause health problems, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, 82

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when exposure exceeds the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for relatively short periods. Long-term exposure can lead to increased blood cholesterol and decreased blood sugar. However, research shows that antimony and arsenic, a proven carcinogen, are similarly toxic (Gebel 1997). Previous reports suggest that polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics used for water bottles in Europe and Canada leach antimony (Shotyk and Krachler 2007; Shotyk et al. 2006; Westerhoff et al. 2008) and recycled plastic bottles leach antimony upon treatments (Cheng et al. 2010). Some studies also indicate that styrene and other organic contaminants leach from plastic water bottles (Ahmad and Bajahlan 2007; Loyo-Rosales et al. 2004). Plastic in the garbage is not only an issue because it could have been recycled. When plastic is just thrown away, the plastic absorbs organic pollutants that were already in existence, thus increasing the overall pollution in a variety of ways. These pollutants get into our soil and water, and eventually get into animals' systems when the animals ingest the water (Arnould and Croxall 1995; Barnes et al. 2009; Boerger et al., 2010; Derraik 2002; Fendall and Sewell 2009; Laist 1987; Moore 2008; Moore et al. 2001). In developed countries waste management has become a large problem with landfills growing to enormous sizes and recycling rates remaining minimal or even unknown. Blockage of sewerage systems is becoming a common problem in cities and towns (Adane and Muleta 2011). This, in turn, creates foul smells and favorable habitats for mosquitoes and other vectors that could spread a large number of diseases such as encephalitis, dengue fever and malaria (Ellis et al., 2005). If plastic bags get access to agricultural fields, they reduce percolation of water and proper aeration in soil. This results in reduction of productivities of such fields (Njeru 2006). Furthermore, in several poor and developing countries, these bags are frequently used to carry food items. This practice can cause serious health problems since some carcinogenic agents could be generated during the chemical reactions that take place in plastic materials (for example, coloring agents) and the food items due to temperature variations (Narayan 2001). In recent reports, it has been mentioned that reuse of plastic bags can cause cross contamination of foods by microorganisms (Cliver 2006; Gerba et al. 2009; Maule 2000). Moreover, plastic bags are also used for disposing of human and other domestic wastes which makes human health more risky as compared to “open” disposal of these wastes (Njeru 2006; Subramanian 2000). This paper gives emphasis on the current understanding of the benefits and concerns surrounding on the reuse of plastic water bottles, plastic bags and looks to challenges, opportunities and priorities for the future in Tigray in particular and Ethiopia in general. In addition to papers published to this theme issue on plastics, the study took into considerations of the impact of plastic materials on human, animal health and environment based on the direct observations of reusing plastic materials among the local communities, waste management systems of the region as original sources of information. Therefore, the present study was, initiated to assess usage of plastic water bottles and bags, their disposal and adverse impacts on human and environment in Mekelle City, Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. 2.


2.1 THE STUDY AREA Ethiopia is located between latitude 3o N and 15o N and Longitude 33o E and 39o E. The study was conducted in Tigray, Mekelle City, the northern most National State of Ethiopia, located between 12.15o N and 14.50o N and 36.27o E and 39.59o E (see figure 1).


Sacha Journal of Environmental Studies, Volume 2 Number 1 (2012); pp. 81-94

Figure 1

Figure 1: Study Area of Tigray, Northern Ethiopia The different types of water bottled industries and their geographical locations in the region are indicated in Table 1. According to the Summary and Statistical Report of the 2007 Population and Housing Census Results the Tigray Region has a total human population of 4.3 million and Mekelle city has a total human population of 215,546 of which 104,758 were men and 110,788 were women (FDREPCC 2008). Various forms of Christianity (Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic), Islam and other beliefs are commonly practiced in the city. The main economic activities are commerce (trading and catering service) and manufacturing enterprises. Table 1: Geographical locations of Water Bottled Industries in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia /No

Name of plant


Specific location

Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) EQ53

Latitude (WGS 84)

Latitude (WGS 84)

Longitude (WGS 84)

Longitude (WGS 84)



Adi Gura,







South Tigray, Alage Eastern Tigray, Atsbi Dera Eastern Tigray, Edaga Hamus Eastern Tigray, Adigrat


12 59’ 00”


39 33’ 00”

Endasilasi e Church



14 07’ 18”


38 35’ 48”




14 11’ 14”


39 33’ 50”

Enda Yohannes (Goli’a)



14 17’ 00”


39 9’ 14”


Sacha Journal of Environmental Studies, Volume 2 Number 1 (2012); pp. 81-94



The durable, lightweight and easy to go of the non-biodegradable plastic water bottles and bags are becoming unavoidable to use in many day-to-day activities of the societies (Ritch et al. 2009) of developing countries like Ethiopia, and of which is often re-used many times and discarded, would cause problems for human, animal and the environments where it deposited. This study uses the content analysis of relevant literature on the toxicological impacts resulting from pollution caused by the disposal of used plastic materials, to human health and the environment, giving emphasis on re-use of plastic bags and water bottles in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. In addition, information obtained from site visits with physical observations coupled with unstructured interviews administered on some consumers and open waste dumps in Mekelle and other parts of Tigray, Ethiopia confirmed the severity of this problem. This situation of improper reuse of plastic wastes and their disposal is carefully analysed and evaluated to determine current and potential eco-toxicological impacts on human in particular and the environment in general. Although this study did not involve chemical analyses of the waste plastics or involve toxicological analysis with emission measurements, it builds strength on the fact that plastic and many organic compounds from anthropogenic source when re-used for different household activities especially as a food and beverage storage leaches significant amounts of toxic substances. This is in agreement with reviewed the literature obtained with collection of available data reporting emissions of organic toxic chemicals from improper re-usage of plastic bags and water bottles and poor plastic waste management’s. It further assumes that huge mass of plastic materials (water bottles and plastic bags) pollutes the environment depending on the poor waste management systems and finally reach to landfills. Applying the precautionary principle, a preventive action approach to avert perceived potential impacts resulting from such contaminations is fundamental to the control of hazardous waste and dangers of improper re-use of waste plastic materials. 3.


3.1 PLASTIC MATERIAL CONSUMPTIONS Plastic bags have been introduced in the 1970’s (Williamson 2003) and gained an increasing popularity amongst consumers and retailers. They are available in huge numbers and varieties across the world. It is estimated that around 500 billion plastic bags are used every year worldwide (Bowmer and Kershaw 2010; Spokas, 2007), and then discarded as wastes usually after a single use (Adane and Muleta 2011). The shortage of safe and accessible drinking water is also becoming a major challenge in many parts of the world. In the wake of a boost in the general awareness about health and hygiene, there is growing concern for the safety and quality of drinking water. A solution to this problem has come in the shape of bottled drinking water which is widely available in both industrialized and developing countries with significant cost to the consumer, but the consumers buy it for various reasons such as taste, convenience or fashion, emergency or necessity, but for many consumers, safety and potential health benefits are important considerations (Mahajan et al. 2006). In Tigray, northern Ethiopia, bottled drinking water plants has been on the increase since 2002 because of shortage of water supply, hygiene problems and availability of market. Most of the bottled water is produced from springs and passed through some physical and chemical processes. From time to time the numbers of consumed water bottles are increasing (Table 2) and leaving a lot of plastic bottles as a serious problem to the environment. Small plastic bags are also tremendously increasing and become easy friends of retailers and 85

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consumers because of their less cost, light weight and handiness. These plastic bags and water bottles are reused by some communities and finally disposed on landfills. Table 2: Total annual consumptions of water bottles in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia Type


Total per day

Total per month

Total per year


Small (0.6 L) Medium (1.0L) Large (2.0 L) Small (0.5 L) Medium (1.0L) Large (2.0 L) Small (0.6 L) Medium (1.2L) Large (2.0 L) Small (0.6 L) Medium (1.2L) Large (2.0 L)

17, 000 15,000 14,000 2,374 1,807 1,351 1,560 1,320 1,200 1,380 1,260 1,080 -

510,000 450,000 420,000 71,220 54,210 40,530 46800 39,600 36,000 41,400 37,800 32,400 -

6,120,000 5,400,000 5,040,000 854,640 650,520 486,360 561600 475,200 432,000 496,800 453,600 388,800 -

Small (0.6 l) Medium (1.0 l)

2,285 2,416

6,8568 7,2480

822,816 869,760

Large (2.0 l)







Maylomin Abyssinia


Total consumption per year 16,560,000

Year of established


Apr., 2002


Apr., 2002


Feb. 2003


Nov., 2003


Recently closed From Addis Ababa


3.2 THE CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF THE USE OF DISPOSABLE PLASTICS The durable, lightweight and easy to go of the non-biodegradable plastic bags and water bottles are becoming unavoidable to use in many day-to-day activities of the societies of developing countries like Ethiopia, and of which is often re-used many times and discarded causing problems for human, animal and the environments where it deposited. Some of the major sources of environmental problems like Ethiopia include sewage and run-off related plastics, materials from recreational/social gathering users, and materials disposed of at open landfills from each household activity. Plastic materials originating from each source is either transported by wind, flood and human drains toward water bodies, or is mixed with the farm (agricultural) lands. In developed countries, poor awareness of societies on plastic materials, poor collection of waste materials and their treatments, high run-off and floods due to rain are important pointed sources of plastic materials, namely plastic bags and water bottles, from/to the environment (agricultural farmlands, surface waters) which undermines soil and water qualities and threatens human and biodiversity. 3.3 TOXICITY IMPACT OF PLASTIC BAGS AND WATER BOTTLES Accumulation of plastic bag wastes causes environmental pollution that can be manifested in number of ways such as deterioration of the natural beauty of an environment (Andrady 2003), death and entanglement of marine animals (Azzarello and Van Vleet 1987; Hofmeyr et al. 2006; Lithner et al., 2009), blockage of sewerage systems of cities and towns in developing countries (Adane and Muleta 2011) which in turn creates foul smells and favorable habitats for mosquitoes and other vectors that could spread various diseases like mosquitoes (Ellis et al. 2005), reduce percolation of water and proper aeration of agricultural soils which in turn results in a reduction of productivities of such fields (Njeru 2006). 86

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Furthermore, in several poor and developing countries like Ethiopia, plastic bags are frequently used to carry food items and plastic water bottles as storage of different beverages like “Tella”, “Teg”, water, and soft drinks; food items like oil, milk, honey and other local food items and petroleum products such as benzene, Kerosene and naphtha. This practice can cause serious health problems due to some carcinogenic agents and cross contamination by microorganisms (Cliver 2006; Gerba et al. 2009; Kontominas et al. 2006; Lin et al. 2009). Moreover, it is common to use plastic bags for disposing of human and other domestic wastes which makes human health more risky as compared to “open” disposal of these wastes (Njeru 2006). In Ethiopia some studies showed that plastic bags are causing severe environmental pollutions to human and animal health in urban and rural areas of the country (Bjerkli 2005; Ramaswamy and Sharma 2011; Tadesse et al. 2008). Besides the toxicity effect of plastic bags the overflowing of water is also a common problem during rainy seasons as a result of blockage of drains. Such problems are also expected to be common in Tigray such as Mekelle City due to the aforementioned reasons. 3.4 LEGAL FRAMEWORK The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has ratified several international conventions that have meaningful implication to solid waste management in the country (Forum for Environment 2010). The solid waste management proclamation (Solid waste management proclamation 2007) gives emphasis of its essential in community participation in order to prevent the adverse effects and to enhance the benefits resulting from solid wastes. In order to ensure the community participation the solid waste management action plan is designed by, and implemented at the lowest administrative units of urban administrations. Article 8, sub-article (2) of the proclamation indicates that it shall be unlawful to put on the market any plastic bag that is not labeled to how whether it is biodegradable or not. But most plastic bags which are used are under the requirements of the country proclamation and thus endangering the environment. Like the other cities of developing countries, due to the lack of waste management information and implementation of the proclamation most of the towns of Ethiopia are suffering from the adverse effects of the plastic materials (Gebremichael 2002; Kassa 2008; Kuma 2004; Tadesse 2009; Tadesse et al. 2008). Although the country, Ethiopia, ratifies solid waste management on plastic bags, the proclamation doesn’t clearly indicate the adverse effects of plastic water bottles after their use. Therefore, due to lack of awareness on the adverse effects of plastic materials it is common that most of the societies are re-using those water bottles as storage for different food and liquid beverages such as oil, milk, water, soft drinks and local foods. Given the direct toxic or ecotoxic infectious threats posed to the environment and human beings by these wastes, it becomes imperative to adopt precautionary and preventive measures with respect to waste dumping and proper disposal. When the above mentioned hazardous plastic waste materials are re-used many times without care and poor waste dump management, this poses a high health risk to the society and the environment. Hence, according to Probst and Beierle (1999), the following major stages characterizing the evolution of hazardous waste management (HWM) programmes need to be applied in managing waste and waste disposal sites in Tigray in particular and Ethiopia in General: • •

Environmental problem identification should be followed by the enactment of legislations to address it A lead agency empowered with authority to draft, implement and enforce enacted regulations is required 87

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• •

Rules and regulations establishing the legal basis for the regulatory programme involving waste characterization, identification of specific technical, procedural and information requirements for waste treatment, storage and disposal should be clearly defined Developing treatment and disposal facilities using public funds or private investments or both with relevant incentives should be considered Creating a mature compliance and enforcement programme which influences public participation of generators of hazardous waste (HW) and operators of HWM facilities to focus on waste reduction, recycling and energy recovery to minimize treatment and disposal costs.

Besides to the implementation of the countries proclamation on waste management systems, the development and implementation of waste management (WM) programs with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Affordable, Realistic, Timely) goals in Tigray in particular and Ethiopia in general requires the creation of an information database on type, quantity and disposal of plastic wastes produced by every consumer. Finally, planning and construction of the WM facility must consider the different types of wastes and their treatments giving emphasis to use plastic water bottles and bags with respect to their severe cost to human health and aesthetic values of the environment. Such a programme should integrate economic incentives and non-market strategies encouraging waste reduction and recycling, promotion of public information exchange and implementation of subsidy schemes for waste handling equipment. In addition to the aforementioned waste strategies, the regional and national governments must incorporate the waste management strategies in curriculums of all their academic levels which can be a good means of creating awareness among the young generations to give care of their health and environments. 4.


A study was carried out on the risk assessment of reusing plastic materials on human health and the environment in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. Environmental exposures have been linked to health problems and affect future generations. These exposures have more significance at critical points in an individual’s lifespan especially in developing countries. People exposed to the reuse of plastic water bottles and bags might be under risks due to the leaching of hazardous chemicals of BPA, phthalates and antimony. Therefore, regional and national governments and environmentalists must give emphasis on creating awareness on the reuse of plastic materials among the societies and discourage the use of small plastic materials during the shopping. The local municipal authorities should provide a means to avoid these used plastics by introducing biodegradable materials; and give educations on the hazardous effect of re-using plastic materials to their residents, and adapt waste management on their environments. Therefore, local governors and municipalities should become aware of risks in their community, work with community groups and policy makers to reduce exposure levels on reusing plastic materials. To raise public awareness, the regional and national different levels of educational curriculums must include the waste management systems from the grass-roots as information resources. In addition to creating public awareness on the importance of a healthy environment, mechanisms of controlling the generation of wastes at the source, alternative disposal ways, establishing additional drop-off areas (landfills) and incineration mechanisms, plastic recycling facilities are also recommended. Helping communities to reduce their exposures to health toxicants will increase the likelihood for a healthy society and clean environment for the coming generations. 88

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Yamashita, R., and Tanimura, A. (2007). Floating plastic in the Kuroshio Current area, western North Pacific Ocean. Mar Pollut Bull 54, pp. 464-488. ACKNOWLEDGMENT We greatly appreciate Mr. Kibrom Mehari (Mercy water bottling factory), Mr. Hadgu (Dera water bottling factory), Mr. Leake (Spa water bottling factory), Mr. John (Abyssinia water distributor in Mekelle) and Mr. Hadgu (Dliet Cleanig Plc.) for their kind assistance and providing information on the presented data. We are also grateful to the Local drink, Milk, soft drink and plastic sellers for allowing us to take pictures.


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