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Opinions of Sunday, 15 January 2017

Columnist: Assuah, Anderson

An open letter to the minister of water resources and sanitation

Dear Hon. Minister:

Congratulations on your appointment as the minister of water resources and sanitation! Your work is intricate than meets the eye, and I wish you all the wisdom there is to execute your job well and diligently. There are several issues I would like to draw your attention to, but for now, I will focus on solid waste management.

Indeed, it is not worth re-echoing that our dear country, Ghana, is engulfed in filth to a very shameful extent. In fact, it is very difficult to stroll the streets without noticing the impunity with which residents brazenly litter, nor the unpleasant sight of stinking overflowing garbage bins. The underlying causes of this is our attitudes and inadequate solid waste management infrastructure. Hence, I propose you consider two main things that will help make remarkable strides in this regard: environmental education and infrastructure.

Environmental Education

To change public attitudes towards current poor solid waste management practices requires a lot of time, dedication, and commitment, and can be achieved through persistent environmental education. It is for this reason that your outfit needs to carefully and strategically craft well thought-through environmental education plans and programmes for the country. This is a sure start to begin creating real awareness of our current predicaments. That waste intervention strategies and programmes continue to fail typifies the lack of understanding of waste and how to manage them. I believe that through education, the public can start to have a paradigm shift on how they view and treat the waste they generate.

It is rather unfortunate that open dumping and burning all kinds of waste have become commonplace in our strategy to managing waste, if not our waste management culture. In this regard, the public will benefit immensely from environmental education on the health and environmental impacts of such practices. Many people may be oblivious of health effects such as lung and heart diseases, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, etc., that could result from burning waste. As well, the public may not be aware that it is not appropriate to burn styrofoam, tires, plastics, electronic waste, and other materials that produce toxic emissions. For these reasons, the public needs environmental education.

We need education in the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. We have come to fancy products with complex and flashy packaging, often under the illusion that such products are better in quality than simply packed items. The public can certainly be educated to understand the marketing agenda behind such sophisticated packaging and that buying such products only contribute to increasing the waste we generate.

It is through persistent environmental education that the public will come to appreciate that anytime we ask to be given plastic bags for every item we purchase, we are only increasing, not reducing the amount of waste we generate. Therefore, it is necessary to carry with us re-usable bags when we go shopping. I recount vividly when I use to carry along a napkin to wrap bread, sugar, and milk that I purchase from the grocery store every morning. Or, proudly having my refillable water bottle, which I moved around with all the time. The good old days of re-using items such as bottles, plastics, baskets, napkins, among others need to be reintroduced.

The public can make use of some very basic environmental education with regards to sorting waste and recycling. Source separation of waste, which is a very critical component to managing solid waste, needs to be thought. The public needs to see demonstrations of how to properly sort waste into categories such as organics, recyclables, and regular waste, and what components of waste they generate goes into each category. Simply, the public needs to be educated on why waste must be sorted and how to do so. Unfortunately, the use of plastic has been introduced into the country without the education and infrastructure necessary to deal with them. It is now your job to make do what is right.

Infrastructure

All the education provided will amount to nothing if the necessary infrastructure is not built. The public cannot be expected to separate their waste from source when labelled bins cannot be provided for them to dispose of their waste. It is important that your ministry devise strategies to provide households with bins to cater for the three categories of waste mentioned above. Be it curbside collection of waste or households sending their waste to dispose of them, providing separate bins for each category of waste is the way forward.

You need to also establish swift means of collecting waste from households or moving waste from transfer station to landfills or waste treatment sites. I attribute overflowing bins at dumpsites to inadequate facilities to accommodate the waste. We therefore expect you to expand existing facilities and build new ones where necessary. Available waste facilities should outweigh the amount of waste generated.

Further, there needs to be enough waste transfer stations and sanitary landfills built to accommodate the many tonnes of waste generated. Of course, landfills should be well regulated and meet environmental standards to avoid further destruction to the environment. We cannot have landfills that do not have linings to collect leachate, nor those that do not treat leachate on site. While I personally do not subscribe to the landfill approach, I believe we can effectively use them and phase them out later when we can afford more advanced technological solutions.

However, we cannot completely leave out technology. It is simply not possible! You need to make use of the appropriate technologies to convert organics, for instance, into compost to feed the agriculture sector. In fact, community-based composting facilities should be built and communities encouraged to compost their organic waste. Likewise, you must make use of tried and tested technologies in managing waste, as there is not enough land to house the waste. For technology, countries like Germany and Sweden have shown the way.

Hon. Minister, as the foregoing unequivocally shows, you have lots on your plate in terms of ridding our streets off garbage. Through environmental education and building the necessary infrastructure, you sure will be doing the country a lot of good in improving poor attitudes towards waste management, as well as creating the environment for us to not complain. Yes, it won’t happen overnight, but we need these critical first steps. We are counting on you. Thank you!

Yours truly, Anderson Assuah Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba, Canada (deenvoy@gmail.com)