ArchiveBlogBlog 16

Where the Waste Goes

Where the Waste Goes

Tues, July 5

As my plane began its descent to Accra, I tried to catch my first glimpse of the city. Unfortunately, cloud cover hid any coherent view, and even below the clouds a thick layer of fog allowed me to see just the lights of the airport towers as the plane’s wheels touched down.

Leaving the airport and taking my first steps into the Accra bustle, I smelled the city before I saw her. It was a stench typical of an urban metropolis — I’ve been to my fair share of such cities in the U.S. and recognized the pervading mixture of human waste and old garbage. (I could barely stand certain areas of New York City, quite literally in places where the sidewalks were blocked by tipped trashcans.)

But the next day, I could finally get a clear view of the city layout. I realized the situation here was more serious than a rotten Big Apple. Long concrete trenches ran to near capacity with flowing debris: food, car parts, skeletons of umbrellas — you name it. Skinnier gutters were etched along every roadside, glistening an eerie green with oil and the undiscernible. The air was sour, in some parts gag-inducing. I tried to overcome the smell, but found the only cure was to breathe through my mouth.

I don’t mean to embarrass the city or its populace, but to address a serious issue that will only worsen as the population grows. Modern Ghana, a news organization in the country, reported that over 4,000 tons of solid waste is generated in Accra and Kumasi — Ghana’s two largest cities — every day. However, poor waste management means this trash ends up either being burned in people’s backyards — the smell of burning plastic comes every block or so — or goes directly to the oceans through the waste canals.

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The local beaches in Accra are strewn with plastic bags, not to mention the heaps of household and industrial trash that stick to swimmers’ skin in stringy piles.

The city has lorry stations — places where dump trucks drop off collected trash — but they have proven insufficient to deal with the massive influx of waste. In the past, the government initiated a Materials in Transition (MINT) program that sought to emphasize the re-use, reduce, recycle model when dealing with solid waste. It was one of the first shifts towards greener, more effective waste management policies, and proponents also emphasized MINT’s potential to provide jobs as well as reduce the cost of managing the city’s waste by consolidating efforts. It’s been five years since the program was developed, but implementation has yet to see success.

Accra’s only composting and recycling facility borne from the program shut down in 2014 due to insufficient government funds.

Monthly National Sanitation Day campaigns have helped raise awareness of the issue and garnered some support for waste management, but enthusiasm for the events has waned over time, and clean-up exercises have declined in recent months, according to local media sources.

The problem causes more than nausea or unpleasant beach swimming. Plastic in Ghana’s ocean water harms fish populations, a major source of food and income for the country. According to the Ghana Export Promotion Council, the average Ghanaian consumes 25 kg of fish each year, and fish exports make up 5% of the nation’s GDP. Fishermen have already faced shortages in fish populations as a result of overfishing and have had to turn to the development of fish farms which can be costly to build for export-level production, meaning small operations will be especially affected by fish shortages.

Health-wise, household emissions from the burning of plastic have been shown to cause a range of diseases, from emphysema to cancer.

This isn’t to mention the health risks that arise with the accumulation of massive mounds of garbage. The spread of disease is made easier and accelerated in such conditions, and water can easily be contaminated by toxic substances when waste management does not adequately remove debris. In a city that experiences frequent flooding of its sewer systems, the issue is only amplified.

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Funding has proved to be one of the main hindrances to effective waste management. According to Modern Ghana, the government foots the bill of waste disposal, and many government assemblies can’t afford the rising costs.

However, on the first day of my internship, I saw hope for the future. I came across an article in the Ghanaian Times titled, Waste management in Japan: Lessons for Ghana. It was written by journalist Jim MaCauley, who had travelled to Tokyo and studied the waste management system there. In his words, “I was fascinated by how efficiently Japan has handled the issue of managing its waste.”

Called the Tokyo Model, the city’s 23 municipal authorities in the metropolitan area consolidated waste management efforts to develop a four-step strategy that includes waste generation, collection/transport, incineration/energy recovery and final disposal.

The waste generation process works to reduce the amount of landfill waste by sorting trash into recyclables and that which can be incinerated. Collection and transport is self-explanatory, but MaCauley’s primary focus was on the country’s incineration and final disposal procedures.

According to MaCauley, Japan has 1,200 incinerating plants that can burn certain wastes into gases useable for energy. The Department of Communities, Land and Environment in Prince Edward Island, Canada, said that such municipal incinerators that burn trash at temperatures of 1,800 ˚F are able to destroy the hazardous, disease-causing chemicals in plastics and other materials.

MaCauley emphasized the need to adopt such a model in Ghana. Of course, there still remains the issue of funding the operations. In Japan, residents also don’t pay for the collection of household waste, but MaCauley said that the funds raised from selling the energy produced in the process has helped ease the amount of government funding necessary to maintain the program. With this in mind, he hopes Ghana will realize its potential to not only reduce waste, but help its citizens live healthier, more prosperous lives. With the skyrocketing prices of electricity reducing its availability to families and businesses, the potential for more energy production is also an exciting prospect for the growing urban populations.

“The mountains of waste in Accra look frightening, but with proper planning, commitment and more funding, it can be successfully managed,” MaCauley said.