By: Akumun Emmanuel
As the world marks World Environment Day whose theme for 2023 is solutions to beat plastic pollution, the urgency to tackle the global plastic pollution crisis looms larger than ever. In this battle against an ecological threat of colossal proportions, Ghana stands at a crucial crossroads, ready to pave the way for a cleaner, greener future. By harnessing the power of collaboration and embracing innovative solutions, Ghana has the opportunity to become a shining example of a nation that defeats plastic pollution. Central to this mission is the active participation of stakeholders from every sector, coupled with a concerted effort to invest in start-ups that offer sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics.
The Plastic Peril
Plastic pollution has emerged as one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time. In Ghana, like many other countries, the impacts are manifold. Rivers choked with plastic waste, marine life suffocating in discarded bags, and landscapes marred by non-biodegradable waste all illustrate the extent of the problem. To address this crisis, it is imperative to understand its impact on our environment and public health as well as the role and responsibilities of each stakeholder in combating it.
Impacts on Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems
Ghana's water bodies, both marine and freshwater, bear the brunt of plastic pollution. Rivers, lakes, and coastal areas suffer from the accumulation of plastic waste, degrading water quality and endangering aquatic life. A study published by the US National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information, carried out to determine the presence of microplastics in fish of economic importance in Ghana found that microplastics were found to be abundant in all investigated samples, with 68% of the fishes contaminated with microplastics.
Devastating Consequences for Wildlife
Plastic pollution takes a heavy toll on Ghana's diverse wildlife. Sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and ingest them, often leading to fatal consequences. Birds and mammals get entangled in discarded fishing nets and other plastic debris, resulting in injuries, suffocation, or starvation. These incidents disrupt ecosystems, biodiversity, and the delicate balance of nature.
Health Concerns for Humans
Plastic pollution not only harms the environment but also poses health risks to Ghana's population. Plastic waste breaks down into microplastics, which can contaminate water sources and find their way into the food chain. Consuming seafood contaminated with microplastics exposes humans to potential toxins and health hazards. Moreover, the burning of plastic waste, a common practice in Ghana, releases toxic fumes that can cause respiratory ailments and other serious health conditions.
As noted by Mr. Michael Affordofe, Head of the Environmental Health Department of the Accra School of Health, while speaking on Center for Sustainable Transformation’s Young Reporters for the Environment’s weekly program on Asaase Radio 99.5, The SDG Hub, on the occasion of World Environment Day 2023:
Setting fire to plastics which is common in Ghana can release pollutants into the atmosphere, exposing our lungs and liver to serious health hazards. However, plastics are generally not safe for us. Therefore, we need to find alternatives to minimize their use or entirely rid them from our system.
Challenges in Waste Management
The management of plastic waste remains a significant challenge in Ghana. Inadequate waste collection systems, limited recycling infrastructure, and a lack of awareness contribute to the accumulation of plastic waste in communities and natural environments. The improper disposal and mismanagement of plastics exacerbate the pollution problem and hamper efforts to mitigate its impacts.
The Way Forward: Sustainable Solutions
As earlier noted, addressing the plastic peril in Ghana requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders assuming different roles and responsibilities. As stated in the country’s National Plastic Management Policy, strategic planning and cross-sectoral collaboration, resource mobilization towards a circular economy, and good governance, inclusiveness and shared accountability are the four focal areas that, when used together, will achieve a comprehensive system for managing plastics and contribute positively to natural capital, environmental protection and socio-economic development.
Photo: Seth Berempong// Students at St. John Bosco Basic School finding new ways to use plastics
The Ghanaian government has a pivotal role to play in the fight against plastic pollution. Implementing stringent legislation and regulations that ban or limit the production and use of single-use plastics is paramount. Continued efforts to enforce existing laws and enact new ones are necessary to create an environment conducive to sustainable practices. Simultaneously, the government must invest in infrastructure for waste management, including recycling facilities and waste-to-energy conversion plants. By incentivizing environmentally responsible behavior and providing the necessary resources, the government can drive transformative change. Furthermore, the private sector, including industries and businesses, has a significant stake in reducing plastic pollution. Embracing the principles of corporate social responsibility, companies should prioritize sustainable packaging alternatives and take responsibility for the lifecycle of their products. By incorporating eco-friendly materials, promoting product recycling, and adopting a circular economy approach, businesses can mitigate their environmental impact. Additionally, industry leaders should collaborate with research institutions and start-ups to develop and scale innovative packaging solutions that reduce reliance on single-use plastics.
Another group of key actors are Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) whose role in Ghana make them instrumental in raising awareness about plastic pollution and mobilizing communities for action. These organizations play a crucial role in educating the public, organizing clean-up drives, and advocating for sustainable policies. Their efforts can empower individuals to make environmentally conscious choices and foster a culture of environmental stewardship at the grassroots level.
Moreover, Ghana's academic and research institutions possess the expertise and knowledge necessary to drive innovation and develop sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics. By nurturing partnerships between academia, start-ups, and industries, research institutions can facilitate the development and commercialization of eco-friendly packaging materials. Collaborative initiatives, such as funding grants and technology transfer programs, should be established to support research projects focused on sustainable packaging solutions. Further highlighting the importance of education in beating plastic pollution, Mr. Michael said that:
For us in academic institutions, we have a role to play in research and also in training. In addition to that, we must also ensure that we put in place strategies to make our environment clean and plastic-free. By practicing what we preach, we can greatly impact the larger community.
Investing in Start-ups
Even though the National Plastic Management Policy suggests that about 82% of Ghana’s plastics waste could be readily recovered and recycled with existing technologies into value-addition products in high demand locally and within the West African region and a vibrant recycling industry in Ghana could recover nearly one million tonnes of waste plastics from the environment and landfills annually, to be recycled into basic-need products valued at 2 billion GHC per year, creating 5 million jobs across the economy, financing has remained a major constraint currently inhibiting both the public and private sectors especially startups.
One of the most effective ways to combat plastic pollution is to invest in start-ups that develop alternative packaging solutions. Ghana has a tremendous opportunity to catalyze a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem focused on sustainable packaging. Incidentally, there are a number of start-ups in the country like Dercol Bags and Spex Africa who are providing sustainable alternative packaging solutions.
Commenting on some of the challenges that are common with implementing sustainable packaging solutions in the country, Mr. Kwame Asamoa Mensa-Yawson who is the Manager of the Ghana National Plastic Action Partnership and also a guest on The SDG Hub noted that:
I will talk about collaboration again. We are still seeing different works being done in silos and until we try to align our work in one way, we will still have challenges with implementation. Again, from the SMEs point of view, funding is a major challenge. Sustainable funding for institutions to scale up their activities. So you see people doing activities, rolling out initiatives. But how can they get sustained funding so that they can scale those activities to the level that makes systematic impact on the ecosystem.
By providing financial support, mentorship, and a conducive business environment, the government, private sector, and venture capitalists can foster the growth of more start-ups that produce innovative packaging materials from natural or biodegradable sources. This investment in sustainable start-ups not only offers a long-term solution to plastic pollution but also boosts economic growth and creates employment opportunities.
Ghana's battle against plastic pollution demands a collective effort from all stakeholders. The government must lead the way with robust policies and regulations, while industry leaders should embrace sustainable practices and collaborate with start-ups. NGOs and civil society organizations must continue to educate and inspire communities, while academia and research institutions drive innovation. Together, these stakeholders can forge a path towards a plastic-free future for Ghana, setting an inspiring example for other nations to follow. By investing in start-ups that produce alternative packaging to single-use plastics, Ghana can lead the charge, not only in defeating plastic pollution but also in creating a sustainable and prosperous future for its citizens. On this World Environment Day, let us unite, innovate, and reclaim the beauty of our environment, ensuring that generations to come inherit a planet free from the perils of plastic pollution.