Plastics use in Ghana: too much of a good thing

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This article summarizes the thoughts from the guests on our online weekly discussion, dubbed, CEBSAR_TALK, by the Centre for Better Society Advocacy and Research Africa (CEBSAR_AFRICA). CEBSAR_AFRICA is a not-for-profit policy Think Tank aimed at offering better alternative options and paradigm shifts for building a better society in Ghana and Africa. Our online event focuses on discussions on various topical issues affecting Ghana and Africa’s democracy. On the 26th June 2021, the discussion was on the topic, “Plastic pollution in Ghana: problems and solutions“. The host of the show was Dr. Evans Appiah Kissi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kassel in Germany. The guests were Frank Acheampong, a Technical Advisor at GIZ for sustainable development; Martin Kofi Mensah, a director of Research and Programs at TICSEP-GHANA, and Solomon Kwasi Atta, an environmental sustainability advocate based in Canada.

Not until the 1990s, Ghanaians didn’t know much about plastic use. Currently, the country generates about 1 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, according to the United Nations Development Programme. That’s equivalent to the 2011 historic record tonnage of cocoa produced in Ghana. Only about 5% is recycled. About 23% find their way into the ocean. The rest either land on landfill sites (28%) or get burnt (11%), or litter the environment (38%) waiting to be swept into gutters and waterways by rains. 

Scientists, in the 1950s spent considerable time to develop hydrocarbon molecules from petroleum into polymers which could synthetically be moulded into sachets, bottles, bags, and basins. The world has now become addicted to plastic use. For us in Ghana, plastic use is a culture. The average Ghanaian now drinks water from a plastic sachet or bottle. The market woman, shop operator, and food vendor feel obliged and curtesy to serve purchased items in a single-use plastic bag. The Coca-Cola Company and other soft drink producers package their products in plastic bottles. At weddings, funerals, parties, and durbars, drinks are served in plastic cups while food is served with plastic cutlery.

Global plastics production now exceeds 300 million tonnes per annum, according to the United Nations Environmental Program.  But while some countries have measures to cut single-use plastics and roadmaps to collect and recycle a substantial amount of its wastes, Ghana neither have measurable objective nor the infrastructure to manage plastic waste sustainably through collection, reuse, or recycling.

Given the non-biodegradable nature of polymers, it takes 20 to 500 years to decompose once disposed to the environment. Soon, they get into the human body when radioactive radiation disintegrates plastics materials into microplastic and pollutes ambiance air which get inhaled by humans. Also, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization, 17% of world’s population and 70% of coastal duelers derive their protein from fish. When plastics find their way into the sea, fishes eat the disintegrated pieces, and soon get served on the dinner table. Research has shown that a substantial quantity of plastic materials in the human body could trigger an immune response which could cause cancer or inflammations.

Excessive plastic wastes in the sea also stresses aquatic life and the marine economy. In April 2021, it was reported that 111 dolphins were found dead on the shores of Ghana, with official reports from the Ministry of Fisheries indicating that they were stressed. Plastic waste and other climate-related effects could be contributing factors, as studies have also shown that plastic waste reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the marine environment. The UN projects that, if immediate measures are not taken, the volume of plastic materials in the ocean will outnumber fishes in the sea by 2050. Already fisher folks in the Greater Accra and Central Regions of Ghana have complained that they’ve been catching more plastic at sea than fishes in recent times, affecting the fishing industry and livelihoods.

No doubt, a substantial contributing factor for the perennial flooding of the two biggest cities in Ghana, Kumasi, and Accra come from plastic waste choking drainages and waterways. In some cases, they form canopies and underpass for water, preventing water flow when it rains heavily. In 2015, for example, Ghana lost over 150 people to flooding in the central business district of Accra when flooding water was mixed with leaking petroleum caught fire. Properties value hundreds of millions of cedis are also lost to flooding every year.

The solve plastic menace in Ghana starts with intensive public education to create awareness about the impacts of excessive use of plastic on the natural environment and human life.  Beyond that, the local government structures must be empowered to develop the infrastructure for the collection, sorting, reuse, recycling, while developing by-laws to sanction indiscriminate disposal of plastic waste.

The central government has an enormous role to play. It could gradually discourage single-use plastics by using market mechanisms. An introduction of a plastic production and importation taxes or plastic use levy, for example, would decrease their use. On the other hand, providing subsidies and tax incentives to produce biodegradable shopping bags made from paper or cotton materials, could promote their use as a replacement to plastic bags. Even more, is the fact that tax placed on plastic bottles, sachets, and bags could be used to promote a recycling system to create more value for plastic collection.

Placing value on waste have proven to be effective ways of cleaning the environments since the construction of the Noah’s Ark. What if the government supports the building of infrastructure to turn plastic waste into energy?  From drivers to collectors, from pickers to recycling technicians and waste-to-energy engineers, hundreds of thousands of sustainable jobs could be created along the plastic management value chain while reducing the adverse impacts on the environment, human life, aquatic lives, and marine economy. Plastic for us, is more of resources than a waste. It all depends on how governments see it.


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