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Opinions of Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Columnist: Victus K. Sabutey

Plastic waste management: A global issue that needs local awareness

Packaged plastic waste Packaged plastic waste

There is no other material that has transcended all nations, all modern economies, and all social classes – regardless of their wealth or characteristics – in the same manner as plastic.

The workable molecular polymer has indisputably become the global insignia of the modern era. Nearly everything, from house plants to paint to airplane components, has a cheap, pliable, plastic alternative – and they are everywhere, including Ghana.

Plastic is arguably the most notable substance in the technological, scientific, and medical research boom since its rise to mass commercial use after World War I, and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. It has also rendered countless commercial commodities once reserved for the wealthy elite available to all economic classes.

The global phenomenon that is plastic has come to symbolize the very trends of human development themselves - pliable, synthetic, and increasingly controversial. With the progression of a growing worldwide middle class, along with the rise of globalization and demand for consumer goods, the world has entered into a torturous love affair with plastic that risk to suffocate very economies it helped create.

The toxic effects of this relationship are extremely evident in Ghana, particularly in urban areas like Accra and Kumasi. The problem? Plastic is the substance of infinite shapes, of infinite uses, of infinite possibilities, but also of infinite time.

Just as the creation and use of plastic touches all four corners of the globe, so do the complications relating to its economically addictive nature and its disposal. The durability of the inexpensive material is one of its many revered characteristics during use but becomes a serious concern once it is discarded.

Plastic, which is usually made from petrochemicals or natural gas (US Energy and Information and Administration), is not biodegradable. This means that its breakdown into minuscule particles can remain in ecosystems for hundreds or thousands of years, posing a grave danger to networks and ecological systems.

Burning the substance releases toxic fumes into the atmosphere, posing health risks and contributing to climate change (Weinaah, 2007). This makes plastics extremely difficult to get rid of in an ecologically sound manner. The sheer magnitude of plastic production and its growth rate, contrasted by a worrying inability to dispose of it efficiently, has experts raising the alarm.

Despite the growing span of knowledge regarding this biohazard, the world can’t seem to stop demanding it. Growing dependency on the product by populations is raising concern about the future of the world’s ecosystems and the health of emerging economies.

At a glance, developing countries seem to be most addicted. According to a special report in the Africa Business Pages, the continent “has become one of the fastest growing markets for plastic goods and machinery in the world”, and “According to industry reports, during the past six years the use of plastics in Africa has grown by an astounding 150 percent.”

At the turn of the century, “it was reported that there were about 40 plastic manufacturing companies producing about 26,000 metric tons of assorted plastic products…in Ghana” and “over 10,000 metric tons of finished plastic products …imported annually” (Owusu-Sekyere, Kanton, Abdul-Kadri, 2013).

Of the plastic that is generated into waste, only an estimated 2 percent is recycled in the country, states Trashy Bags’ website, a popular fashion boutique that creates clothing and accessories from plastic waste. The other 98 percent finds itself either in the hands of waste management companies like Zoomlion, or in the streets, drain pipes, and waterbodies, polluting urban areas and clogging drainage systems.

Attitude problem

A large part of Ghana’s waste management problems is due to insubstantial public awareness and opinions on plastic waste, as well as its marginal presence in (although there have been good strides in higher education, according to Victus Sabutey of Creative Storm). Public opinion and cognizance are one of the largest and most pressing aspects of the challenge that need to be addressed in order to boost public support to future governmental policies and projects.

Ghanaian citizens do not seem to be especially concerned with the waste issue in the country, prioritizing other, more immediate apprehensions or interests – but they are not alone.

The plastic waste conundrum is a global issue, and differing nations have differing approaches and policies to combat the dilemma. It’s easy to wag a finger at Ghana’s measly 2 percent recycling rate of its 22,000 tons of plastic waste per year (Trashy Bags), which seems absurd compared to Austria’s 63 percent recycling rate for 10,404 tons, or Germany’s rate of 62 percent for 68,435 tons (European Environment Agency 2013; ChartsBin 2011).

However, one must note that these are examples of countries where public awareness and recycling firms have been greatly endorsed in recent years, and where government and private funding runs plentiful. Capital is clearly a determining factor in the adequate disposal of all kinds of waste. But public opinion plays a larger role than what is generally assumed, regardless of the nation in question.

Ranked as the third largest economy in the world, and the birthplace of plastics, the United States has notably less interest in recycling and eco-friendly plastic waste disposal than their European counterparts. Type “USA opinion on plastic” into a web search engine and the search results linked to articles discussing plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures outnumber the other links (none of which discuss recycling or plastic’s role as a mentality to the environment) about 2:1.

Despite numerous waste management companies offering recycling options, recycling isn’t mandatory by law in the United States like it is in numerous countries in Europe of the 287,848 tons of plastic waste generated by Americans per year, only 25 percent is recycled, according to Recycling Coalition of Utah.

Several broad similarities can be observed in the mentalities of American and Ghanaian citizens – lack of incentive, the inconvenience of available systems, and the valorization of other issues as being more important than recycling.

Nevertheless, the situation in Ghana cannot be compared to the United States. Most Americans are not concerned with plastic waste management simply because they have the infrastructure and companies that are effective. The trash is swept away to another place, and the problem is hidden away in a landfill – an “out of sight, out of mind” dilemma.

In Accra, contrariwise, the waste management challenge can be observed as soon as one steps onto the street. The countless plastic bags and wrappers that seem to be a permanent sight in urban areas are the result of an arduous cocktail of money and time restraints, ruinous mentalities, poverty, and lack of infrastructure – creating a serious threat to the advancing of Ghana’s economy and its people’s health.

People who are unaware of the implications of plastic waste pollution on the environment, their health, and their livelihoods “litter their environments indiscriminately”. The material’s numerous packaging qualities have heightened the growing popularity for the use of plastic bags in marketplaces, as well as portable sachet water.

Waste management companies are unable to cope with the growing percentage of waste generated by a growing urban population, much less recycle the plastic or provide conveniently placed bins all over the country.

Plastic finds its way into drains and clogs sewage lines, fostering health implications like the recent cholera outbreaks, as well as flood and fire risks. Research and studies on waste management “are just lying on shelves of universities and research bodies” (Monney, 2014), among countless other obstacles.

And although there have been numerous policies written and adopted on this issue, Ghana lacks the ability to implement (and regulate) them, says Raymond Mensah Gbetivi, Commercial Manager of Voltic Company (Nortey, Ghana Crusader). Although the effects of plastic waste are visible in Ghana, people simply have other things to deal with. “The average Ghanaian struggles for what he/she will eat on a daily basis and therefore thinks less about what happens to the environment,” says Isaac Monney in an article for Modern Ghana.

Developing countries seem to have greater issues dealing with waste than others precisely for these reasons. As people struggle to pay rent, buy food, care for their families and make a living day to day, “heaps of waste piled up along the streets or accumulated in gutters will be the last thing they will think of.” The environment’s health takes a back seat in people’s minds when in reality it is one of the most important elements in the country’s development.

The butterfly effect

What needs to be communicated and sensitized to Ghanaians is that the country’s actions are not confined to its borders. The plastic waste management crisis affects everyone to various degrees, no matter their position on the globe.

One of the discarded plastic bottles that find itself on a Ghana beach could find itself washed ashore in Brazil weeks later. An action taken in Kumasi could affect someone else thousands of miles away. Small actions can have colossal effects, and a nation’s environmental issues (and its approach to them) do not stop at its frontiers.

The interconnectivity of the world, through technological globalization, transport, or even natural occurrences like ocean currents and wind, means that undertaking the plastic waste menace is an endeavor shared by the entire world’s people.

That being said, in order for Ghana to participate in the global effort to reduce climate change, Ghanaian citizens must not only be aware of their impact on the environment but the impact of a changing environment on their lives as well. Energy costs, health, animal and parasite populations, fishing and food safety, even aesthetics, are all directly affected negatively by plastic waste, choking Ghana’s economy, its ecology, the wellbeing of its people, and thus, its future development.

This is not to say that Ghana has not made monumental efforts in addressing the issues of climate change. Numerous proposals on all levels of the issue have been put forward, including the adoption of oxo-biodegradable plastics, encouraging the use of plastic alternatives, optimizing access to recycling bins, taxing the use of plastic materials, and investment into plastic recycling plants.

Companies from the private sector have also stepped forward, with grocery stores like Koala considering to charge consumers a fee on plastic bags (rather than offering them for free), and creative divisions like Trashy Bags and local artists turning discarded plastic into clothes and art, creating jobs and stimulating the economy in the process. The recent Ghana National Climate Change Master Plan is a hefty 300 page300-page document containing action programs planned by the government for 2015 to 2020.

Among these programs is one titled “Recycling of Solid Waste,” which outlines its objective “to reduce the environmental impact of the disposal of solid waste in landfills through waste reduction, recycling and recovery.”

One of its actions is a plan to “develop and implement programmes in education and awareness-raising on the benefits of alternative uses of waste.” Ghana has made incredible strides in the proposal and adoption of environmental policies – what’s holding it back is an inability to implement them quickly due to lack of resources. Public awareness of the issues is thus crucial for these policies to gain the support they need from the population as well as investors.

Now that we live in the plastic age, it’s easy to forget the sheer magnitude of influence that the environment has on our lives. Its practicality and convenience make it increasingly hard to quit. Attitudes towards plastic and its disposal must be changed in order for people to begin to take steps towards improving the situation.

There are countless ways to expose the public to this crucial knowledge: Implementation of education programs on climate change and the environment on all school levels, advertisements, television, films, art, and many more. Creative uses for recycled plastic that appeal to a wide audience can send a powerful message to all populations.

Informing people on the weight of their behaviors, as well as drawing connections between plastic waste and important parts of their lives, is essential, not only for the future of Ghana, but for the future of the planet.

Once people know the impact of their actions, and the importance of proper waste management, only then will investments and behavior turn in favor for the efforts taken to resolve the crisis. Every empty water sachet thrown out a car window hinders Ghana’s progress.

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