Plastic Waste Menace

The missing link in Ghana’s waste management practices


By Emmanuel Mawuli Abalo



The attitude of most Ghanaians towards effective waste management practices is a problem-induced, occasional and reactive response to the mountain of filth in the drains, street, backyards and streams mostly in our urban communities. This approach is usually championed by the youth, fun clubs, community members and government institutions after the occurrence of life-threatening disasters brought upon us by our apathetic and lackadaisical attitude towards environmental sanitation. The choked drains, the mountain of filth on our streets and backyards do not happen overnight. They are the antecedent of careless environmental sanitation responsibility on the part of citizens who for the most part, regard the sanitary of their communities as the sole responsibility of government sanitation institutions: the underlying reason being the payment of taxes paid to these institutions.


However, once a sanitation-related disaster strikes, such as the worst cholera outbreak in 2014 and the 3 June 2015 flooding in Accra which claimed over 200 lives and properties valued over $428,000, community mobilisation for a clean environment suddenly takes the centre stage for environmental responsibility and is staunchly supported by media slogans such as, “never again”. This happens after the supposed “government sanitation institutions” have been censured for their inefficiencies and the need for government to be proactive. In a rebuttal, the sanitation agencies resort to blaming community members for their lack of support and nonchalant attitude towards environmental sanitation. Barely a month or two after the grandeur display of cleaning the communities and gutters, the apathetic behaviour kicks in, reverting our overnight clean environment to their appalling glory of plastic choked drains and streets.


Observation and involvement in sanitation activities


In 2014, Ghana recalled the age-old spirit of communal labour where community members came together to clean their surroundings on a monthly basis. This was necessitated by the outbreak of cholera in 2014, reckoned as the worst since 1982. Dubbed the National Sanitation Day (NSD) and observed on the first Saturday of every month, the NSD was held as a “game-changer” in Ghana’s sanitation impasse. Citizens were encouraged to forego their economic activities in the morning on this day and partake in removing heaps of garbage at all refuse dump sites and were complemented with education on appropriate sorting techniques. I was then in the second year of my undergraduate education when the exercise was announced. On its debut, community members enthusiastically teamed up with their elected representatives, waste management companies and opinion leaders to rid their surroundings of filth. Following this acceptance, a cautious conclusion was drawn that the nation’s challenge with environmental sanitation would soon be over if the momentum of the community approach was sustained.


In collaboration with my project supervisor, Seth Agyemang (PhD), I led a group of four students during my final year undergraduate dissertation to ascertain the effectiveness of the NSD which by then, had been in existence for about three years. We found that the enthusiasm and fervour that greeted the NSD has waned down considerably, while participation and commitment have dwindled, pointing to an imminent dissipation of the spirit and purpose of the activity. We observed during data collection that most of the participants of the NSD were clad in political party paraphernalia thus watering down the incentive for non-party affiliates to partake. Unsurprisingly, our study findings revealed that the NSD has been ineffective in its mandate and this was confirmed by increasing sanitation-related diseases and mountain of filth in the study communities and the country.


Investment in and the State of Sanitation in Ghana


I am mesmerised by the mismatch between the depth of investment in sanitation services and the state of sanitation in Ghana. One would assume that investments in sanitation services should result in a cleaner environment and well-being, but the opposite seems to prevail. In a review of waste generation and management study in Ghana by myself and some colleagues in 2018 using 2010 as baseline, we were astonished by the locked-in practice of open incineration, disposal in open fields, burying in the ground and for those along the coast, disposal into the oceans by some 56% of the population. Less than half of the total waste generated (44%) are collected. These unsustainable practices contributed to the outbreak of sanitation-related diseases and avoidable cost of $290 million according to the 2012 estimate by the Water and Sanitation Program: about 1.6% of Ghana’s Gross Domestic Product annually.


Regarding investment, the main decentralised arms of government in charge of regional development (the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies [MMDA’s]) expended between $20 and $5000 on waste management through a public-private partnership scheme between 2014 and 2017. Painfully, during this period, sanitation-related diseases claimed more than 600 lives, and this necessitated an increase in government’s sanitation budget by over 300%: from $14 million to nearly $70 million in 2017. This was complemented by initiatives by the Ministry of Environment, Science, Glass and Innovation to effectively coordinate the management of plastic waste in the country. Despite this, the recent report by Water.org indicates that 70% of all disease in Ghana are caused by poor sanitation and 6000 children die every year due to lack of good sanitation. Clearly, the loss to poor sanitation far outweighs the gains from sanitation investment by the Ghanaian government and requires draconian steps to remedy the negatives of poor sanitation.


Our coastal waters, streets, storm drains, backyards and open fields are inundated with plastic waste. They continually act as catalysts to flooding. Between July and September 2018, I watched with sadness as communities in Ahinsan-Estate, Kumasi, got flooded after some short duration of rainfall which filled the storm drains due to the presence of excess plastic waste.  In the coastal regions, plastic marine debris continues to pose a threat to the fishing industry and the marine ecosystem by interfering with artisanal and deep-sea fishing operations and tourism. Knowing very well that most inhabitants depend on the sea for their livelihood activities in the coastal regions, when will this menace be solved? Indeed, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) call to prevent the oceans from having more plastics than fish by 2050 demands the collective effort of local (countries), regional (continent), and global actors. David Attenborough captures it nicely as “it is our little local actions that will culminate into an active global response to ending the threat of plastic waste to our marine and terrestrial environment”. This indicates that environmental sanitation is a shared responsibility which must be upheld by all and sundry!


Models of Sanitation Actions: the World and Ghana


There are models of plastic waste management around the world that the Ghanaian government should consider emulating. Singapore has successfully created an island from its solid waste and transformed it into an income-generating hub through tourism. England recycles its plastic waste into other useful products. The European Parliament and some African countries, such as Rwanda, Kenya, Mauritania, Tunisia, South Africa) have resorted to banning single-use plastics to strengthen the fight against the menace of plastic waste on our oceans, marine and terrestrial environment, animal life and human health. These initiatives contribute to the realisation of a blue planet, an important state for promoting sustainable ecosystem services.


In contrast, no real commitment has been displayed by the Ghanaian government in following the steps of its neighbouring States and the world in enforcing stringent environmental sanitation policies. While alternatives to convert plastic waste into energy, resource and income exist, Ghana continues to commit tax-payers money to the post-colonial practices of generating, collecting and disposing of waste at landfill sites, with no indication of successfully reducing sanitation-related disasters and diseases. The lackadaisical attitude and seemingly apathetic response to fighting plastic waste and municipal solid waste in Ghana, will not inspire the action and result needed to keep our oceans and terrestrial communities clean.

Just as climate change, more commitment and exigent action are needed to reduce the mountain of filth and ocean of plastic waste in Ghana. If Ghana’s oceans would regain its former glory and the government’s ambition of making Ghana one of the cleanest cities in Africa are to be realised, the attitude towards waste management needs to be revised. There is no need to waste scarce national resources on unprofitable waste management schemes when the proliferation of plastic waste in our cities results from the nonchalant attitude of citizens and the reactive response of government sanitation agencies. It is time for Ghana to take the bull by the horns in the environmental sanitation menace by adopting and implementing effective enforcement paradigms to curb the increased use of single-use plastics. If anything at all, the measures and steps taken by some African countries in banning single-use plastics, amidst the opposition, is a good faith worth emulating by the Ghanaian government.



Art by Sapphire Vital


Emmanuel Mawuli Abalo is an MSc Candidate in Environmental Change and Management, School of Geography and the Environment and a product from the Department of Geography and Rural Development, KNUST, Ghana. Emmanuel's current study provides a journalist narrative of recent sanitation practices in Ghana by highlighting the missing link in the country's sanitation practices, particularly plastic waste management. This piece forms part of an on-going observation, and study ascertaining the post-colonial sanitation practices in Ghana.



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