According to UNDP, Ghana currently produces 1.7 million tonnes of plastic waste annually with only 2% being recycled, implying that most of the plastic waste generated ends up in the environment.
The problem of plastic littering in Ghana becomes compounded during heavy rains wherein the rain washes the plastic bottles, bags, and sleeves into road‐side gutters and water bodies resulting in urban floods and transmission of vector-borne diseases such as malaria. Additionally, plastic littering has dire consequences on agriculture, water sources as well as human and marine lives.
For the past two decades, the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), as the regulatory body responsible for policy formulations to deal with plastic waste, has had consultative engagements including conferences, seminars and workshops with stakeholders in the industry to help deal with the plastic menace in the country. The intended policies are aimed to either change the behavior of consumers or producers towards less plastic consumption and production.
However, these policies and programmes have not yet yielded the desired results and this has been attributed to improper implementation and lack of enforcement by the regulatory authorities.
Across the globe, Africa is currently the continent with the highest number of countries (34 countries) that has some sort of plastic legislation followed by Europe (29 countries). For instance, Rwanda who is a pioneer in banning single-use plastic bags, is now one of the cleanest nations on earth. Kenya has followed suit, helping clear its iconic national parks and saves its environment. Tanzania recently became the 34th African country to implement plastic policy by banning the importation, production, sale and use of plastic bags.
Other West African countries including Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Gambia, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Niger and Senegal have all introduced some regulations for the ban of the use and importation of non-biodegradable plastic products whiles countries like Botswana opting for levy introduction. Why can Ghana not follow suit considering its democratic credentials as a role model for Africa with some sort of plastic regulation?
Different regimes of government have spent millions of cedis to desilt drains across the country specifically the capital, Accra. This has been going on for years and the problem of perennial flooding seems to be compounding every rainy season.
We cannot continue doing the same things and expecting different results. As the widely acclaimed saying by Albert Einstein, it is only insane people who continue to do the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.
Authorities need to acknowledge that the problem of flooding is multifaceted hence focusing only on desilting of drains is not a solution to the menace. They also need to concede that it will always be expensive to clean up in the future than the cost of preventing plastic littering today.
I believe Ghana does not want to experience the deadly flood that happened in Bangladesh in 1988 where almost two-thirds of the country was submerged, causing several deaths due to poor drainage resulting from plastic bag litter clogging drains. The Ghana government needs to be proactive in tackling the issue to curtail any future disaster of such kind.
Unfortunately, Ghana finds itself in the group of countries whose economic growth is fast outpacing waste management infrastructure development (i.e., development preceding planning). In trying to find solution to the plastic waste management problem in the country, there is a current debate as to whether we should go for total ban or levy imposition on plastic products.
The former has not worked fully in many countries due to lack of enforcement and affordable alternatives, as biodegradable plastics are usually more expensive. Additionally, statistics indicate that the plastic manufacturing sector provides more than 17,000 direct employment with more than GH¢25 million in state tax revenue annually.
With government looking for ways to generate more revenue to fund projects coupled with the high unemployment rate in the country, banning of plastic products would not be a priority for government notwithstanding the consequences of plastic waste littering in Ghana.
Recently, the Minister of Sanitation in her interview on a radio station in Accra admitted that plastics cannot be banned entirely in Ghana, rather government needs to have policy that would utilize the plastic waste as a resource to create more jobs. The Executive Director of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reiterated that government cannot ban plastics due to the large number of plastic industries in the country.
Even though I agree with them, as politicians they could not have put it in any better way than this. In a democratic dispensation like Ghana, politicians are more interested in votes than advocating for unpopular regulations that will remove them from office.
In 2011, government introduced a 10% Environmental Excise Tax (EET) imposed on plastic manufacturers in Ghana with the intention of setting up a Plastic Levy Fund Authority to help mobilise funds to curb the plastic waste menace in the country. However, after many years of accumulation of the funds, the funds are yet to be used for the intended purpose.
What is clear is that, we do not have an explicit direction as to how we want to tackle the plastic waste issue as a country. Firstly, we need to learn from the experience of countries that have introduced regulations on plastics and what the impact has been like.
Secondly, a baseline study should be conducted to assess the industry, which could be a guide for policymakers to introduce measures to regulate the industry.
In proposition, government should look at development policies that could shy consumers away from the use of plastics especially plastic bags for packaging items such as food. A government that advocate for public-private collaboration could adopt a voluntary agreements approach where large supermarkets volunteer to stop providing customers with free carrier bags.
Voluntary agreements between the government and producers/retailers can also act as an alternative to bans and be an effective instrument demonstrating public-private collaboration. In this particular instance, government goes into agreement with manufacturers/producers to voluntarily establish what is known as the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), including deposit return schemes like it is done in Scotland.
In Scotland, consumers pay a 20 pence deposit when they buy a drink in a single-use container and this is given back when they return the empty bottle or can to be recycled. Germany has also seen a decline in plastic waste generation due to retailers no longer handing out plastic carrier bags to customers for free, but rather demanding money - usually 10 cents.
The implementation of this policy has seen Germany surpassed the 40 bags per person per year set by European Union (EU) by 2025. Similar schemes are currently in place in England, Denmark and Lithuania and have delivered positive impacts. These and many more policies have yielded positive results and made huge impact both on the environment and social well being of their people.
Through collaboration with the manufacturers/producers, a gradual integration system could be initiated wherein manufactures would be tasked to substitute a percentage portion of their production say 10% by bio-plastics for a period of two years. This could be done in trenches for 10 years and provide the manufacturers ample time to plan for the total substitution of plastic products in Ghana.
In all these, research stands to play a vital role as Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Party's presidential candidate put it that, starving research and development is like eating the seed corn.
The Plastic Levy Fund Authority when established could collaborate/partner with research institutions specifically the Institute of Industrial Research (IIR) under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), where 1% of the levy funds could be allocated to support research in finding ways of adding value to the plastic waste as resource.
The institute is currently carrying out a research to ascertain the applicability of LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) plastic wastes in pavement construction. Through this collaboration, many of such research would be carried out to help minimize plastic waste generation and see the material as a resource which could be utilized for other purposes.
Finally, Ghana does not need to reinvent the wheel but rather learn from the experiences of other countries especially African countries that have made significant impact with plastic regulations.
For us to make headway in the plastic waste management, we should be abided by the quote of George Bernard Shaw that “progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”.
Mutala Mohammed (Ph.D)
CSIR – Institute of Industrial Research
East Legon, Accra, Ghana