Making Accra a clean city has brought to mind the health implications of our poor management of waste in the country as a whole. I write this from my perspective as a public health physician and not as a waste management expert. Waste management in the country leaves a lot to be desired of it.
This includes both the management of solid and liquid waste since it has a negative impact on our health and the environment, we live in. In every corner of our towns and cities, garbage can be found. This is made worse when it rains, the gutters and waterbodies regurgitate the refuse that they have been forced to ingest, spewing it out as in a volcanic eruption. The little said about the filth in our markets the better, waste management in our markets is just terrible.
And it’s from these markets that majority of our foodstuffs are purchased and used in our daily meals. Some individuals walk around in the community at night and dispose of their rubbish anywhere and when confronted have the audacity to say, “Is it your property?”, referring to the place at which they are illegally disposing of their waste. As citizens, it’s high time we look at everything as our own and treat it as we would want our personal property treated.
Landfills or should it be rather be called open dumps are the main method for the disposal of our waste. Is it the most effective way? I will leave that for the experts to decide. Plastic waste disposal is a disaster in the making and as a country, we need to sit up and look at it seriously.
Plastics were once perceived to be a revolutionary item in our packaging world. It was thought to be a more hygienic way of packaging our foodstuffs, for storage etc. Now it’s more of a curse than a blessing. We have plastic items strewn all over our land. When weeding your environment, the ever-present black rubbers will surely stick their heads out as if to tell you “I am still here, it will take a long time to get rid of me. Most probably not in your lifetime.”
Waste management is more tightly regulated in most developed countries and it involves the generation, collection, processing, transport and disposal of the waste. There are various methods of disposal of waste. These are recycling, composting, sewage treatment, incineration and landfills. All these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. It’s how well these advantages and disadvantages are managed that is most important.
Though major developments have occurred in landfill technology, many of our landfills remain primitive in the manner in which they are operated. Research has focused more on the health impact of landfills and incineration on the general population and on the workforce. There are other factors affecting the results of these researches carried out so cannot be said that some of these health outcomes are solely linked to landfill sites or incinerators.
Health Risk and Waste
Landfills contribute significantly to the disease burden in our public health facilities. Waste is dumped with no leachate control, limited application of cover material, it is left at the mercy of scavenging animals and some disease vectors. The consequences of solid waste disposal in landfills are gases and leachate generation. This results from microbial activity, climatic conditions, refuse type and the operations of the landfills.
These landfills are sometimes situated near living habitats exposing residents to poisonous gases emanating from these landfill sites. Methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide are produced by these landfills which escape into the atmosphere as pollutants.
The release of gases and leachate into the surrounding environment may result in a risk to the health of populations surrounding these sites and those who work in these sites. There are water and air pollutions as well as the effects of global warming to be considered.
Respiratory symptoms, irritation of the skin, nose and eyes, gastrointestinal disorders, allergies, headaches and psychological disorders are among some of the health issues frequently reported by individuals living near landfill sites. The most important pollutants from waste incineration are particles, gases, aerosols, metals and organic compounds and studies have shown an association of these with respiratory and cardiovascular disorders.
Susceptible populations such as children, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions have more severe outcomes of these health conditions. Workers at both landfills and incinerators are also exposed to heavy lifting as well as manual handling of containers thus increasing the risk of musculoskeletal disorders.
Microplastics have been found in a significant number of aquatic species, some of which end up in our plates of food. The fish in the sea and rivers are suffering from the ever presence of plastics in their environment. As a society that believes in throwing rubbish into gutters, water bodies etc as the most ‘effective’ way of disposing of waste, we are surely experiencing massive plastic deposits in our waterbodies.
The management of our waste should be taken seriously by all our municipals and districts authorities, communities as well as individuals to ensure a healthy, less polluted environment. First and foremost, we need to get the waste collection at the source right. Waste generated should not be thrown around, laws covering this should be enforced to the letter.
Authorities need to ensure that individuals and households have waste collecting agencies assigned to them and their services used accordingly. The issue of segregation of waste at the source of generation needs to be considered. For a start, authorities could look at the segregation of plastic waste for recycling then the others are tackled in a step-like manner.
The mode of disposal should be monitored, our landfill sites modernized and managed effectively. It is my hope that we get the management of our waste right in order to help us in our bid to achieve the SDG goals, in particular goals 3,6, 8,9,11,13,14 & 15.
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