Background And Analysis
In his 15th address to the nation on measures the government was taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, among other actions, indicated that “… I have just instructed the Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection to begin preparations to ensure that as of August 24 to September 18, all 584,000 final year JHS students and 146,000 staff both in public and private schools be given one hot meal a day” ( https://www.myjoyonline.com/news/national/all-final-year-jhs-students-to-be-given-one-hot-meal-a-day-akufo-addo/ ).
This government intervention is to ensure that Junior High School (JHS) students across the country, who are preparing to write their Basic Education Certificate Examination, do not go hungry while complying with COVID-19 protocols. Little did the President know he officially ordered the addition of plastics and Styrofoam to the country’s waste stream for twenty continuous days.
Since August 24, 2020, social media has been flooded with photos of delicious-looking meals nicely packaged in Styrofoam containers, accompanied with plastic spoons. In some photos, the packaged foods are ‘protected’ in plastic bags. Components of some of the meals such as shit), pepper, and/or gravy come in extra small plastic bags. In fact, it appears the kind of food being served on a particular day determines the number of plastics that will be utilized. Very few circulated photos have less packaging; however, Styrofoam containers are constant. Given the number of people (students and teachers) to be fed, a basic calculation reveals that 730,000 Styrofoam plates will be produced each day, culminating into 14,600,000 single-use Styrofoam containers at the end of the twentieth day. Similarly, a combined 29,200,000 single-use plastic spoons and plastic bags (including small plastics) will be produced during this period. So, all other things being equal, approximately 43,800,000 single-use plastic bags, plastic spoons, and Styrofoam containers will be produced when the ‘intervention’ is over. That’s a lot of waste!
Now, the bigger questions are: How is/will all that waste be managed? What are the strategies? Did the planners and implementers of the initiative consider how the waste being generated will be managed before rolling out this intervention, or it is one to think about in the future? Styrofoam, plastic bags, and plastic spoons are not recycled in Ghana, so whose idea was it to utilize these items?
The destination of these types of waste has mostly been in dumpsites (if we are lucky), open drains, and on the streets; and not in materials recovery facilities, at recycling plants, or engineered landfills. For some, using plastic spoons, Styrofoam containers, and plastic spoons is not new because many, if not most people, on a normal day, do same in their homes, favourite take-out joints, and events.
To such people, this is a bad practice! And, with this intervention, we are dealing with our government, which needs to show leadership and commitment in dealing with waste generation and management, particularly single-use waste. It is for such leadership, I believe, is the reason we have a ministry, the Ministry of Sanitation, dedicated to waste management, among other functions.
So, you see, the direction needs to come from the top, which should reflect in our solid waste policies, targets, strategies, initiatives, and management approaches. What are our plans for waste management as a country? Back to the One Hot Meal a Day initiative, did the planners consider possible options or alternatives to the single-use items mentioned above?
The first and most logical option that the planners and implementers of this initiative should have considered is making use of reusable plates, bowls, and spoons. Particularly in the public schools, which have seen the implementation of the Ghana School Feeding Program (GSFP), reusable plates and spoons could have been utilized. What happened to the stockpile of bowls, plates, and spoons that are used for the GSFP?
Did they go missing or the planners of this initiative did not consider it prudent to explore this option? Reusing items over and over again until their end-of-life is a cardinal pillar in solid waste management because it prevents the dire environmental consequences of extracting raw materials to produce new items for use (that is, single-use). Have you ever heard Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Recovery (4Rs)?
A second option is utilizing biodegradable or compostable paper plates and spoons. Although not the most desirable approach because waste is still created from using the plates and spoons, as well as cost concerns of purchasing them, they are options that could have been explored. At least, the waste generated can be composted and the resulting compost used for gardening. It is perhaps sounding too optimistic and assuming too much that these plates will be deliberately composted, given that composting (or organic waste recycling), as a solid waste diversion approach, is practically non-existent in most homes and communities. However, since the plates and spoons are compostable, they are better options to Styrofoam and plastic spoons that are single use.
The One Hot Meal to JHS students is certainly an important intervention by the government to prevent students from going hungry, while preparing to write their final examinations. However, from a solid waste management perspective, implementation of this initiative over the twenty days period will add about 43,800,000 single-use plastic bags, Styrofoam, and plastic spoons to Ghana’s ever-increasing solid waste generation, whose management is extremely poor.
The lack of planning for waste management with this initiative is symptomatic of a deeper lack of policies, plans, and direction for solid waste management in Ghana that needs fixing. Waste should not be created before it is managed; rather, management of waste should be part of the conceptualization and planning process of initiatives and events. While providing the meals solves an immediate need of students, the lack of proper management of the resultant waste, threatens the environment for our future leaders.
Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba, Canada