Addressing Plastic Pollution through Entrepreneurship in Ghana
Though only in production for little over half a century, plastics have become so ubiquitous that by mid-century, it is estimated that there will be higher quantities of plastics than fish in our oceans. This is because plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, and less than 10% of plastic produced is recycled. The rest ends up in landfills where toxic chemicals leech their way into groundwater, or in our oceans, where they break down into microplastics that then make it into the bellies of wildlife and humans alike. It is estimated that the average person ingests between 39,000-52,000 particles of microplastic per year.
Consumer habits driving demand for cheap products is a big part of this problem, as are plastic producers who are unwilling to sacrifice short-term profit for longevity of our planet’s habitability. These problems are then further compounded by waste management systems unable to handle the growing burden of plastic waste, particularly in developing parts of the world.
In Ghana, a beautiful country that has become increasingly plagued by mismanaged plastic waste, the country is taking important policy strides toward addressing the challenge. In 2017, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo Addo launched the National Sanitation Campaign, which aims to increase Ghana’s sanitation by establishing a National Sanitation Authority, building a youth brigade tasked with enforcing sanitation laws, and establishing new recovery sites for recycling, among other efforts. Earlier this year, Ghana became the second country in the world and the first in Africa to join the Global Plastic Action Partnership of the World Economic Forum.
These policy solutions, while sounding great on paper, have been slow to take root. A visit to one of Ghana’s gorgeous beaches or along a main road makes it clear that plastic is everywhere. It is estimated that the country loses approximately 1.44 billion GHS annually due to poor sanitation. During the rainy season especially, plastic pollution clogs drains, leading to public health crises such as numerous cholera outbreaks in recent years. The 2014-15 cholera outbreak impacted nearly 29,000 Ghanaians.
With affordable, accessible waste management services slow to keep pace with demand, many families deal with their waste by dumping or burning it. During a recent survey in Odumase, a town in Ghana’s Eastern Region, just 60% of respondents reported using trash collection service. Among those not using the service, 56% reported that the main reason was due to lack of available service in their area, while another 22% reported that the service doesn’t come often enough. To deal with their waste, 47% reported burning their waste, while 40% said they dump it in open space or allocated dump sites near their communities.
One major source of plastic waste in Ghana comes from plastic sachet water, a main source of drinking water for much of the population. In the survey, 53% of respondents reported sachet water as their primary source of clean drinking water. These sachets are often discarded as soon as they are consumed, leaving sachets littering the ground. In homes, these sachets often get burned along with the rest of household waste, but it seems few are aware of the harmful impacts of home burning. Home burning increases risks of heart disease, aggravates respiratory ailments such as asthma, causes rashes, nausea, and headaches, and can damage the nervous system and reproductive system. Burning of plastic in particular releases some of the most dangerous, highly toxic chemicals. Plastics containing PVC release cancer-causing and hormone disrupting Dioxins. They accumulate in our body-fat and thus mothers give it directly to their babies via the placenta. Dioxins also settle on crops and in waterways eventually winding up in our food, our bodies and passed on to our children.
To help address these challenges and contribute toward the National Sanitation Campaign’s aims, the Center for Sustainable Development has partnered with Youth and Women Empowerment in Ghana’s Lower Manya Krobo District, where Odumase is located, to help sensitize community leaders and citizens on the impacts of plastic pollution and to devise simple everyday actions that can be taken to help mitigate the issue. Leading up to the start of the sensitization campaign, the initiative invested in training a group of 10 young women in tailoring, but with a twist. Instead of learning to make typical clothing items found on the market, these women are making waterproof items lined with upcycled plastic sachet waste, including baby bibs, kids’ lunchboxes and school pencil cases, toiletry bags, tote bags, placemats, shower curtains, and more.
During sensitization trainings beginning in November 2019, Queen mothers, PTA leaders and other key community stakeholders were provided tote bags purchased from the tailoring trainees, helping the young women earn income while at the same time giving the community members something tangible to help encourage them to avoid using plastic bags when they go to the market for their shopping. Judith Ahiabor, the tailoring trainer working with YOWE, described the sensitization by saying “They were so into it, because they were complaining about the plastic choking the gutters, and people’s homes were getting flooded, so they embraced it so well. What we came up with was that we would go to the schools, and come up with an award scheme in the community. Those who are able to gather a lot and keep their homes and environments clean, we will award them with our products.” In addition to committing to bringing their own bags while shopping, other actions that were decided upon during the sensitization trainings include separating their wet and dry waste, stopping their burning of household waste, and educating their peers to do the same. The community will also hold community clean-up days beginning in January 2020.
As these sensitization trainings are going on, the tailoring trainees are growing their sales by partnering with schools to provide their children’s products to the pupils, and participating in local exhibitions to expose their products to new audiences. Sensitization trainings will continue over the coming months, and changes in waste management behavior will be documented through continued observation and survey data collection by the CSD and YOWE team.