Garbage is a huge issue in Ghana that I think about a lot less in Canada. At home, I never litter and there is usually a garbage can within a few blocks of wherever I am going. In Ghana, public trash bins are pretty much unheard of. When I first got here and asked someone in a store if there was a garbage can for my wrapper, he looked at me like I was crazy! Garbage can be found littered everywhere, and is sometimes also piled up in random places (though I’m not sure why). Garbage trucks can be seen, but they are private and not everyone can afford it. I’m also not sure if they see the benefit in it.
In Ghana, it is not as common to throw your trash in a bin and have it collected every week. The most common way to get rid of waste is to burn it. Even waste that is taken to the dump is burnt, so there doesn’t seem to be much benefit, other than the fact it’s concentrated, and probably not near you (but that concentrated smoke is probably affecting somebody else’s neighbourhood). Since most of the food waste can be left out for animals (there are always chickens and goats roaming around in Accra, with more sheep in Tamale), most of the waste left over is plastic. Most of the fires I’ve seen are some combination of plastic bags with some sort of brush to actually catch fire, and sometimes even whole objects (like shoes) just sitting there in the street simmering for hours. Other than the ill effect this probably has on health, I also worry about safety. How does the fire-station know what’s a real fire that needs putting out? These fires are left alleys, beside peoples houses and in fields, with nobody watching. I have no idea how nothing else ever gets caught on fire, since they’re unattended…. Nobody seems too concerned.
The gutters are also used for waste disposal. People throw garbage, urinate, defecate, and pour used water from various daily activities into these open sewers that presumably go straight to the ocean. Sometimes they can be really crazy colours, which makes me wonder what kind of chemicals are in them. Some poor people dig plastic out of the gutters (presumably to sell for recycling) and I really worry about their health. Another major concern is the safety of these open sewers, especially for children, and especially when the power is out at night. Unless you know the area, it makes walking a huge hazard. I’m not sure what the worst part of falling in the sewer would be – banging your head, breaking a bone, getting bruised up, being embarrassed, or all the toxic sludge. I’m guessing the latter….
Evidence of this problem can be found in every city and neighbourhood I’ve visited, with plastic bags often found blowing in the breeze or caught in the grass at the side of a path. You can also see all the pollution and haze in the air at times, which sometimes makes it really difficult to see far in the distance. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between the fog (since I live near the water) and the smog from burning garbage. It can’t be good for people with asthma…
In terms of household collection, there’s no organized public service to collect trash. There are, however, private companies who charge a weekly/monthly fee, or sometimes will charge by the bag. You don’t put your garbage out on the curb, but you wait for the truck to come to your neighbourhood. The truck plays a song like it’s selling ice cream (as you can hear in the video) which often wakes me up when it parks outside my windows early on Saturday morning! Once the truck is nearby, you must run out with your bag of garbage and they’ll throw it into the truck.
But the garbage doesn’t always go to a proper landfill. It is generally burned, or brought to a not-so-environmentally friendly dump where it’s also burned. Since most of the garbage here is from plastic, the smell is quite horrific. My first house was located on the same street as street as this type of dump, and driving by it everyday was not a pleasant experience! In Accra, it’s not uncommon to wonder whether what’s hanging in the air is clouds, fog, smoke, or just smog. Sometimes Mike and I play the horrible game “Do you think that’s a garbage fire or a house fire?” When huge blacks billowing clouds of smoke float overhead or can be seen far in the distance.
I would say one of the biggest problems is plastic packaging waste. It’s 90% of what I see on my daily commute. The picture above (left) is all of the packaging waste I generate in one day, just based on the food I buy. Every item is wrapped in plastic, and then put in a plastic bag. I normally try to refuse the second bag, but they get confused and so I take it. Almost every type of food here comes in a plastic bag that you basically suck your food out of. Soup, porridge, rice, ice cream, water…. and the list goes on. In some places they actually collect the water sachet bags (presumably for recycling) but I’m unsure of where they end up or how they are processed. I thought the west was obsessed with convenience foods (and hence tons of unnecessary packaging), but it seems that even the fresh food made by the ladies cooking at little shops along the street in Ghana is just as problematic.
In Ghana there are so many public services that are lacking. How does the government even know where to start? Should they organize waste collection? Should they focus on healthcare? Improving the roads? Making sure every child is in school? These are really tough decisions, and I have no idea what the right answer is…