Various governments since the 1980s have attempted to concentrate efforts at either managing or outright ban of plastics. The worry of all these governments is the fact that our gutters get choked with plastic waste leading to flooding in most parts of the city after the rains. Some other concerns have been that our beaches have been inundated with sachet water waste destroying their aesthetic beauty thereby driving away tourists. Our livestock also feed on plastic waste and get choked and die. Choked gutters with plastic waste also become fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes infesting the general populace with malaria. Another issue has been the fact that some food sellers use plastics in cooking food such as Cassava and Fanti Kenkey, even though research has shown that excessive exposure of plastic to heat can generate some chemicals that are injurious to humans after consumption.
The plastic manufacturers and users have however argued that the introduction of plastics into packaging have rather helped in the preservation of food and water. Packaging experts say that plastic packaging is cheaper and more durable as compared to other forms of packaging such as paper. Sachet Water, according to producers have reduced the risk of transferring communicable diseases from one person to the other as the introduction of the product phased out the then popular method of selling water with cups that are used by many customers. The producers also claim that the filtration systems currently used by the industry are effective in making water “pure” for the populace. Available statistics actually show that the production and use of plastics including sachet water has grown considerably. The industry has emerged from its cottage state to large scale with the industry directly employing over ten thousand Ghanaians.
The first attempt by a government to manage plastic waste was somewhere in the 1980s when the government set up a committee to deal with the issue. The committee completed its work and made various recommendations to government. The committee report was however to remain one of the many reports on the shelves of ministries waiting forever to be implemented. After a couple of years, another committee was set up under the ministry of trade and industry after an attempt was made by the then mayor of Accra, Hon Stanley Nii Adjiri Blankson to ban the sale and distribution of sachet water in the metropolis. This committee later metarmorphorsized into a task force made up of almost all relevant stakeholders including the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Environment and Science, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Information, Accra Metropolitan Assembly, Sachet Water Producers, Plastic Manufacturers and Plastic Recyclers.
At the time recycling was a far away technology that many Ghanaians have no idea of, even though some of the manufacturers had in-house recycling systems that recycled their factory waste for reuse. The agenda of that task force was to turn the plastic waste into a commodity for trade. It therefore embarked on a series of campaigns to sell this idea to Ghanaians. Fortunately there was a company in the country who was ready to export the plastic waste overseas because there were no commercial recycling companies in the country. The task force quickly launched the “Operation Chase the plastic waste” with a massive clean up exercise involving most Accra Metropolitan Assembly(A.M.A) Members and over two thousand youths drawn from communities within the city. The campaign caught on very well as Ghanaians enthusiastically started collecting the plastic waste especially sachet water waste for sale. As the business became popular, plastic manufacturing companies such as Blowplast and Petroplast took advantage and imported giant recycling machines into the country. Many more recycling companies joined the trail because the rise in the price of crude oil on the world market made recycling more lucrative. Most of these companies ironically transformed the recycled plastics into black carrier bags which is creating another kind of plastic waste. The task force’s attempt to get government to give special incentives to recycling companies was however not successful as recycling is generally perceived as an individual’s own business. The task force however managed to promote the business by setting up plastic waste collection points in all the regions along the coast where individuals could send their plastic for sale. Collectors of the plastic waste soon organized themselves into a group known as the Plastic Waste Collectors Association of Ghana(PLWAG). The task force gave this group all the needed assistance and support. Today some of these collectors have expanded to own trucks which they use in buying plastic waste from small scale collectors for resale to recycling companies. It was during this period that the stakeholders in the private sector made the call on government to impose a levy on all plastic imports at the various ports of entry to generate more sustainable revenue for the management of plastic waste in the country. The task force’s input into the revision of the national environmental and sanitation policy that led to the inclusion of the setting up of a National Sanitation Improvement Fund into the final policy is a culmination of the efforts by private sector players.
The Task Force gradually fizzled out as the financiers who are mainly plastic manufactures gradually got weary. However, as the task force was phasing out, the then Mayor of Accra, Hon. Stanley Nii Adjiri Blankson, resounded his war drums against plastic waste, particularly sachet water, calling for a ban on the sale and distribution of sachet water within the Accra Metropolis. This threat by the mayor led to the birth of another initiative, Accra Plastic Waste Management Project; by the private sector, mainly sachet water producers and sellers as well as plastic manufacturers in December 2007. The uniqueness of this initiative was the fact that in addition to generating funds to manage the plastic waste, the project was empowered to prosecute littering offenders according to the AMA bye laws, recruit plastic waste guards as well as educate the general populace on the appropriate disposal of plastic waste.
The project also provided dual (yellow and green) litter bins within the metropolis to enable the populace to appropriately dispose off their waste. The reason for providing two litter bins at every location was to encourage separation of waste to make recycling much more easier. The two litter bins were therefore market with plastic waste and other waste signs. The project further went into an agreement with one of the recycling companies to empty the plastic waste as a source of generating revenue as the company was prepared to pay for the waste they collect from these bins. As one would expect, the populace mixed up the plastic waste with all manner of waste including human excreta. It also came out that in places where the bins had enough plastic waste, scavengers made them their haunting grounds. They stole the plastic waste from the litter bins since the waste has now become a commodity. The project also in collaboration with the Greater Regional Police Command and the Accra Metropolitan Assembly succeeded to arrest and prosecute over two hundred littering offenders. This achievement was immense as most Assemblies across the country are not able to enforce their own bye laws for various reasons.
The project as well used the mass media mainly; radio and television to propagate the need for proper disposal of plastic waste. The project, which is currently running, is however not able to fully execute their educational campaigns due to lack of adequate resources as advert slots on radio and TV stations have become so expensive for such projects to afford.
The project also attempted to enhance recycling by turning the plastic waste into a composite material to be used in the production of concrete blocks in collaboration with the Center for Industrial Research. If this attempt succeeds the problem of using the recycled plastic to produce the black carrier bags would be nonexistent.
Despite previous attempts, the present Government has also resurrected the threat of banning plastics after a committee it set to look the issue had recommended otherwise. The government has given a deadline to plastic manufacturers to furnish the Ministry of Environment and Science with a cut-off date which they, the manufacturers think will be suitable for the banning of importation of plastic granules for the manufacture of black plastic carrier bags. How government will be able to determine which granules passing through the ports will be used to produce black carrier bags and which will be used to manufacture other plastic packaging products is one question that will challenge the implementation of any ban on only black plastic carrier bags. Government has also decided it will put on hold the banning of sachet water but rather focus on recycling and ensure that the sachet water waste is recycled. This decision clearly reveals gross ignorance on the part of government on the issue, because most recyclers use the recycled granules for producing the black carrier bags. So if black carrier bags are banned, the recyclers will no more be interested in the sachet water waste because they have no use for it. This means that government’s decision to promote recycling will be in vain since the recyclers will not be interested in sachet waste.
The present government has also suggested the use of bottled water instead of sachet waste since the latter has a higher propensity to litter. This assertion by government is also seriously flawed on the basis that the problem of sachet water waste is indiscriminate littering which is tied to the attitude of the populace towards littering. It then means that Ghanaians will continue to litter whether it is bottled or sachet water. Littering of bottled water waste will even be more problematic than sachet water waste since a few bottles will cover a larger space than the sachet water waste.
It would have then been more prudent on the part of government to have heeded to its own committee’s recommendation to ban a certain level of thickness of carrier bags rather than a total ban. In this way the government would be promoting reuse of such carrier bags because the bags will be more durable and long lasting as well as expensive for shop owners and food vendors as well as the banks to dish out plastic carrier bags they way they do now.
The committee also recommended the use of biodegradable plastics. Indeed, our law makers and government leaders sometimes lack the knowledge and initiative to solve some of society’s pertinent problems. In some cases certain individuals close to government, because of their parochial and selfish interests tend to misinform decision makers. I believe strongly H.E President Atta Mills is committed to solving the plastic waste problem but he seems not to be well informed or misinformed and therefore confused as to the appropriate measures to take.
Biodegradable plastic is simply normal plastic mixed with other additives to make them degrade after being exposed to sun, water or humidity over a period of time. Why should government not be able to introduce a fiat to say that all plastics produced in this country should be bio degradable and ensure that the Ghana Standards Board and the Food and Drugs Board check manufacturers to the letter? Something must be definitely wrong somewhere. It is either government is not committed to solving the problem or certain individuals are ill advising misinforming the government. I will choose the latter because if plastics are useful and at the same time creating waste that is damaging our environment, the best way out would be to see how we can keep plastics and at the same time curb its harmful effect. Biodegradable plastics would then be the logical decision to take.
Another solution to the plastic waste problem is to curb littering. Experience over the years has shown that the management of plastic waste has been compounded by littering of the waste by the citizens. All over our cities and towns, one would see plastic waste, especially sachet water waste littered everywhere. Apart from the fact that littering makes our cities dirty and chokes our drains, causing flooding, it also becomes more expensive and difficult to manage. This is so because, it is much more easier to recycle clean plastics than dirty ones. It also costs more to go round collecting plastic waste for recycling than just collecting them from litter bins. Many advocates have prompted education as an effective way of curbing littering. I would say that education without punishment will not solve the problem. Education surely plays a major role but law enforcement will be the icing on the cake. This could be related to the carnage on our roads. We educate drivers but also punish them when they fail to do the right thing. Drivers do the right thing not because they want to but because the police will arrest and punish them if they don’t. Many have compared our situation to developed country and even remark that Ghanaians abroad abide by the laws of the country in which they find themselves. It is also sometimes remarked that some foreigners who live in Ghana do some things they dare not do in their own countries. This is so because those countries enforce their laws to the letter. If littering is an offence, focus on punishing offenders. Overtime, the citizens will fall in line and stop littering as if they are doing so voluntary.
If government really wants to solve the plastic waste problem, it must as a matter of urgency, mobilize the stakeholders which includes sachet water producers, plastic manufacturers, sachet water sellers and the media to ensure that they fully understand the problem at stake and thereby get the best of solutions. Government must invest in research into other forms of recycling rather than focusing on only conversion of the waste into pellets. The metropolitan, municipal and district Assemblies must be charged by the ministry of local government and Rural development enforce their sanitation laws. It takes nothing from the assembly. The Accra Plastic Waste Management Project started and is still arresting littering offenders for prosecution. If a project can do it, then the Assemblies can also do same if they really want to. Government must once again reconsider the recommendation of their own committee to impose a ban on certain level of thickness. This action will reduce the volumes of plastics being used by the citizens and will also encourage reuse of plastics. Government finally should make a bold move on the introduction of bio degradable plastics into the country. The Ghana Plastic Manufacturers Association did a lot on its own to conduct a research into the technology and has submitted a completed report to the Vice President’s office since 2009. If government is interested in the technology, then it must simply go back and reconsider that report.
By Quaranchie Adama-Tettey
Manager, Accra Plastic Waste Management Program &
Campaign Communication Specialist