According to Mr Odewuyi, a sanitation worker, most people would rather hand him a 500 naira note in pity than dispose their refuse appropriately.
Among other interesting revelations, he said that, between taking wrappers off sweets and unpacking electronics from their cartons, the state was generating 13,000 metric tonnes of waste every month.
The gory side effect of that statistic is that a fair amount of the waste that Lagosians generate ends up, not in polythene bags or bins, but on the curb, in gutters, on street corners from Ojuelegba to Ajah.
Walk around Lagos, from the slums of Mushin to the high-rises and beach houses of Ikoyi, and there’s always a pile of refuse waiting to accost your eyes without permission.
Lagosians are deemed to dispose of refuse on a whim, and the inner parts of the city are building a reputation for bad hygiene. Gutters clogged with refuse have worsened flooding on many occasions, most recently, the July floods that hit Lekki, Surulere and parts of Victoria Island.
While initiatives like Environmental Day did help in the past, the government has created agencies and programs to inform people of the effect of randomly disposing of waste and subsequently, discourage that behaviour.
Obviously, that hasn’t worked much.
Sprinkled across the state’s metropolis is a street team of sanitation officers, dressed in orange coloured gear.
One of them is Timothy Odewuyi, nearly 60 years of age. I ask him, but he laughs it off before taking the conversation in another direction and leaving it there.
Timothy, or Alhaji as his neighbours call him, lives in Oworonshoki. He lives alone, and his job is his sole means of survival.
“I was in a kind of dilemma”, he telljs me of how he got the job, “So when LAWMA started offering jobs, I decided to do workmanship for them”.
Scattered around Lagos, from the triple lanes of Third Mainland Bridge to the link roads of Ojota, each person has a separate duty that fits into the system.
Together, they are a collection of road-sweepers, gardeners, sewage disposers and cleaners who work as part of LAWMA’s street team.
The most popular of them are those who sweep the major roads in the mornings. Alhaji sweeps the link bridge at Oworo, resuming at 8 am and closing at 4 pm.
His is a unique vantage point; here, he sees the traders, residents, and aliens dispose of waste in the same place that he cleans, every day.
So I ask him why he thinks this happens.
He answers in Yoruba.
“It is a lack of awareness. Our inability to be conscious of the results of our actions has put us in a dangerous place”, Alhaji says, “You see a grown person drink water in the bus and he sticks his hands out to throw the sachet on the road. It is because he has not thought about the implications of his actions.”
“We ignore what will happen when we do things, so we just act the way we want without caring for others”, Alhaji says.
For as long as memory serves, the Lagos State government has campaigned to inform residents of the environmental impact of waste disposal.
Earlier in 2017, the Lagos State House of Assembly passed a “Bill to Provide for the Management, Protection and Sustainable Development of the Environment in Lagos State and for other connected purposes”.
Its provisions include programs to inform the public about waste disposal.
Following the Lekki floods in July, the state launched a television campaign to serve the same purpose. But next to posters declaiming a lack of public hygiene, you would find heavy piles of rubbish.
The irony in this is not lost on Alhaji. He says that even though he is sure that some of them dispose of refuse on the streets, some passers-by often stop to greet him and praise his hard work.
They may understand that they are responsible for some of the refuse that Alhaji is sweating over, but that does not stop them from dipping their hands into pockets and offering him naira notes in appreciation.
Money is good, but 500 naira will not stop Lagos from being one of the dirtiest mega-cities in the world, a class it shares with India’s Mumbai.
So I ask Alhaji, how do we keep Lagos clean?
I should have been ready for the kind of proverbs that aged wisdom inspires, but I wasn’t.
“You know, when a child is growing up, it is the parents that teach him how to move and what to do and what not to do.
When he eats sweets, it is his parents who can tell him that throwing the wrapper away is wrong”, he says, “That is what we need to do for the young children, we need to teach them a culture of being clean”
“With time, you will notice that when they grow up into adults, things will not be the same”
A young mind is an open one. Old suburbs like Mushin and Yaba will show the age long culture of waste disposal but the opportunity to instil a culture of hygiene in the next generation goes in tandem with Lagos’ plans to be a megacity and prime business and tourist destination in the future.
“It is the old people that I’m worried for. It’s that same lack of consciousness that I’m talking about”, he says, “Why should we have to teach old, matured people that disposing water sachets on the road is a bad thing? How can those kinds of people teach children what to do?”
“What the government needs is sanctions. They need to create rules and laws about disposing of waste that everybody will know so there is no excuse.
As soon as you break them, you pay a fine or you’re locked up. When people see that kind of thing happen once or twice, they will begin to watch themselves”
He may lack the insight that data will give but Alhaji’s submissions might be more accurate than his more informed peers will be willing to admit.
As time has shown over and over again, the problem of waste disposal is as cultural as it is infrastructural.
Attaching sanctions like fines or short jail terms to the random disposal of waste will discourage many.
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Once the average person understands that throwing his water sachet out the door can land him in trouble, he will most likely choose not to do so.
Still, LAWMA and the state government are not entirely free of blame. It is somewhat discouraging that it is easier to swallow your empty bottle of coke than look for trash bins or disposal points where you can dispose it.
Governor Ambode has said, in recent months, that his government’s new PSP-based waste plan will solve the city’s waste and refuse problems with concession-based deals with multinationals.
The promise of adequate infrastructure should be enough to make a difference, but like Alhaji’s suggestions imply, Lagos will only be clean if the city comes together to make it happen.