Agnes Kwansah dragged the heavy sack through the dusty parking lot. Inside there are all kinds of plastic garbage. She went to a scrap collection station. This is the result of Kwansah’s collection during the last month in Swedru, a town about 80km west of Accra, the capital city of Ghana.
Finding scrap from plastic here is very simple. Plastic pollution is a disaster across Africa, and Ghana is one of the hardest-hit countries. Now, however, Ghana is being hailed as a success story with a clean-up effort funded by the world’s top consumer businesses. Called the Ghana Recycling Initiative of Private Enterprises (GRIPE), a consortium of seven international businesses sponsors to collect waste in the African country and has received numerous accolades.
However, recycling in Ghana is essentially just collecting plastic waste. It’s nothing compared to the operations of these seven consumer giants, with $340 billion in revenue globally. These businesses also contribute significantly to creating mountains of plastic waste that are engulfing impoverished countries in West Africa, destroying flora and fauna and causing air pollution when plastic waste is burned rampantly. .
Despite calls to curb plastic, the world has never produced more plastic than it does now, at around 500 million tonnes a year. Experts predict that this number will gradually increase and reach 1,000 million tons by 2040. Cheap and useful plastic is unquestionable. Another factor driving plastic’s continued popularity is the success of consumer businesses in convincing the public that it’s not the plastic that’s at fault, but the user’s.
Kwansah, 47, watched as two men weighed her plastic trash bag. The total amount of plastic waste she collected was 220kg, but the amount she received was not significant. The woman said she hopes the people in charge will do the right thing with the plastic bottles she has sold them.
However, a Bloomberg investigation found that the people in charge of GRIPE have done little to address Ghana’s plastic waste crisis. Instead, they intend to kick the ball of responsibility for someone else: their customers.
Near the weigh station in Swedri there is a poster showing GRIPE’s cartoon mascot, Aunt Litta, gesturing with gloved hands. She often spends a lot of time scolding the people of Ghana for their habits. “Don’t be like the bird Borla” is the advice this campaign often says. Borla birds are birds that live in landfills in this country.
Immediately after Kwansah left with her hard-earned coins, Louisa Kabobah, manager of GRIPE, gave a speech to make her point. She said: “The plastic itself is not the problem. The problem is the people who use them“.
Love it or hate it, plastic remains a matter of life and death in Ghana, a country of 32 million people with a quarter of them living in poverty. A lot of people here cannot cook with clean water. On every curb in the capital Accra, people can easily see discarded containers. On the city’s beaches, piles of plastic litter cover the sand. Slums use plastic for roofs while children use plastic for kites.
The sewers in Accra are clogged with garbage, especially plastic bottles, during each rainy season. In 2015, a flood killed 200 people in the Ghanaian capital, most of whom were sheltering in a gas station when the fire broke out. However, the government’s official report identified the tank drainage system with plastic waste blocking the manholes as contributing to the worsening of the disaster. Then there were calls to ban the use of plastic here.
The region’s largest consumer companies have held meetings run by the Ghana Industry Association, a leading trade organization, to find their own solutions. What emerges is GRIPE whose mission is to recycle plastic waste and limit their impact on the environment.
First, GRIPE promotes the use of used plastic as building materials, toilets and building supply chains so that Ghanaians can sell their plastic waste to recyclers. They also tout the benefits of plastic such as being lightweight, easy to shape, durable and affordable.
And GRIPE soon proved effective, at least for the businesses behind it. They even received support from Ms. Penny Mordaunt, then in charge of international development issues, of the United Kingdom. After lobbying by the businesses behind, Ms. Mordaunt named GRIPE and the people behind it at an event in March 2019 in Westminster, England. Shortly after, GRIPE announced its next flashy promotional campaign, which included cartoons starring Aunt Litta and a Twitter account.
However, real recycling output in Ghana remains low. According to a 2020 report by the European Commission, only 0.1% of plastic is recycled in Ghana. The report’s authors also note that GRIPE has only an “active media presence” but has so far had few results that are likely to produce landmark changes. GRIPE’s activities are coordinated by employees of the Ghana Industry Association.
Cordie Aziz, an American activist, traveled to Ghana when she learned about the program. However, GRIPE disillusioned her when she failed to fulfill her commitment. According to Aziz, her organization no longer works much with private businesses because of concerns that they are only trying to “cleanse”, label activities as environmentally friendly but in fact are the opposite or have the same effect. at a minimum.
From the outset, GRIPE’s core goal has been to alleviate poverty by providing income security for informal workers, such as Kwansah, to motivate them to collect plastic waste. People looking for recycled plastic are mostly elderly women, spending eight hours a day rummaging through filthy landfills. In cities, children also scavenge for scraps. However, critics argue that GRIPE is not as effective in combating poverty as it is in promoting recycling.
A head of municipal waste management in the Accra region said the meager sums received by garbage collectors did not provide any significant incentive. There are even those who say that any service that relies on the poorest of society without paying them adequately is exploitation. A garbage picker can work for a whole month to change the amount of 40 USD, which is not enough to cover a living.
Meanwhile, Aunt Lite was always preaching a different message. GRIPE’s ad promises “lots of money” to people who collect bottles. Another ad called waste plastic a “treasure”. However, GRIPE itself is not the buyer. Money for the scavengers comes from its recycling partners.
To gauge the effectiveness of GRIPE, the Bloomberg reporter spent several months investigating the recycling practice. The first challenge was to locate the recycling collection points. In 2020, GRIPE cut the ribbon to inaugurate a collection center in Jamestown, Accra, where residents can bring in their collected plastic, paper, scrap metal and glass for sale. But nobody has been to this center recently, they haven’t even heard of it.
Finally, a man said he knew the location. He led reporters through the slums on the coast, the markets and the shacks. Stepping through the incineration area with thick black piles and the burning smell of burned plastic, the man stopped at a small warehouse with a faded GRIPE logo. It was abandoned for many months.
Residents of the slums still collect plastic bottles and sell them to Chinese merchants, who periodically come to pick up trucks. When the rainy season comes, people call it plastic season because all the garbage goes to the beach and the collection is more convenient. The proof is a nearby lagoon, which is filled with things that look like colorful jellyfish but are in fact plastic bags and other packaging.
GRIPE’s most popular innovation is just trash cans The blue recycling line, easily found at Total’s gas stations around Accra, allows residents to dispose of their waste more conveniently. The plastic contained in these bins is soft drink bottles, also known as PET, which are relatively easy to recycle and have a high price in Europe.
In December 2021, Bloomberg placed electronic tracking devices in two bottles that they threw in these bins. They don’t move for weeks. At the end of January, one was moved by road and then disappeared. The other one is still lying there. In March, the reporter went to the garbage disposal and discovered that the recycling bin had overflowed. It is located between the oil drums. The bottle containing the tracking device was still inside.
Talking by phone, Prince Agbata, a director of the recycling company that is supposed to manage the bins, said they had “funding challenges”. GRIPE did not make any financial recommendations for collecting the bottles. Their capital is running out. Agbata also said that none of the facilities in Ghana have the capacity to recycle PET into new bottles, so they are difficult to sell locally. Most of them are exported to Europe. The rest is to turn these bottles into something that can no longer be used to make plastic bottles.
Shipping bottles to Europe for recycling is no longer the ideal solution as it costs time, money and leaves a large carbon footprint. Clement Ugorji, Coca-Cola’s vice president of public affairs, also said:Exporting plastic waste from Africa is not a sustainable direction. We need recycling capacity right here on this continent“However, building recycling facilities doesn’t come cheap, an investment that GRIPE partners have so far been reluctant to make.
In addition, plastic recycling, which often requires the capacity to collect, process and recycle, makes the finished product more expensive than those made from virgin plastic.
In fact, recycling in Ghana mainly turns plastic bottles into yarn for making clothes or making wigs. This process is called downcycling, where it only happens once. Garments or wigs still end up in landfills and the recycling cycle is broken.
Chinese traders dominate the market from bottles to recycled yarn in Ghana despite little oversight of what happens inside their facilities, mostly concentrated around the largest ports. And they are not in GRIPE.