With each passing day, it becomes more apparent how the earth is changing. Our old familiar earth is now flooding, glaciers and ice caps are melting. We are now experiencing more extreme seasons. Such extreme weather conditions are causing disasters such as mudslides and landslides more frequent and intense thus threatening lives and livelihoods. Its impact are grim in poorer, more remote environments as they are less likely to adapt making them more vulnerable. Climate change also impacts food production as a result of heat and drought.
The sheer impact of climate change on life globally, has led to the creation of conventions such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with the overarching goal of preventing human-induced interference with the climate system. Under the UNFCCC countries agree to cut down on carbon emissions to mitigate the consequences of climate action.
According to researchers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), plastic production and disposal resulted in 850 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 and may be responsible for up to 2.8 billion tons by 2050. Plastic waste pollution is undoubtedly one of Ghana’s most pressing environmental challenges today. Most plastic ends up in landfills or the environment after it is discarded and some of it may get burned. This method not only produces toxic gases and disperses pollutants into our air, but also is responsible for 38% of all the carbon emitted from plastic pollution.
Sadly, we have become heavily reliant on single-use plastic because of the convenience that they provide and we must begin to think twice before reaching out to them. We use these shopping bags, straws, and food wrappers for a few minutes to hours but they remain in the environment for many years. The same reason for which we reach out for plastics-their durability- is what makes them nearly impossible to be broken down by nature. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), if current production and consumption trends continue, the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. It is therefore imperative that we become more circumspect and change our relationship with plastics, especially single-use plastics. We must embrace the 4Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle in an attempt to reduce plastic waste and by extension, slowing down climate change.
These 4Rs should become our collective mantra
Refuse. This means simply saying no. Refusing plastic materials is the primary way to lower our impact on landfills.
Reuse: Single-use plastics have created a ‘throw-away’ culture by normalizing consumer behaviour of using materials once and then throwing them away. Reuse plastic containers for storage of food or other household items and reuse shopping bags.
Reduce the use of single-use plastics. At supermarkets, Ghanaians should consider going along with reusable cloth bags. We ought to take a huge step to replace all or most single-use eating utensils, Styrofoam cups, water bottles, and paper plates with compostable or reusable alternatives. These alternatives include paper, stainless steel or silicone straws for plastic straws. We should also consider taking flasks and bowls when buying our morning breakfast; koko or waakye. Fortunately, there is a growing number of stores that stock such items for more sustainable living.
Recycling is unfortunately not a major part of our lifestyles. But in attempting to live a zero or close to zero waste life, recycling is important.
The Ghana Recycling Initiative by Private Enterprises is an industry-led coalition formed under the Association of Ghana Industries (AGI) that works on integrating sustainable plastic waste management solutions in Ghana. The ultimate goal is to implement recycling and second life solutions to reduce the impacts of post-consumption waste on the environment. In an attempt to build a recycling culture under the ‘IRECYCLE’ project, special recycling bins have been placed in different Total filling station locations to increase plastic waste collection rates. Consider collecting plastic water bottles or empty sachets of water and dropping them off at these locations. These seemingly small steps make us as consumers more conscientious and reduce the impact of plastic pollution.
It is important however to note that these individual actions taken must be complemented by state policy directed at industries producing plastic. For the average consumer, plastics are almost unavoidable due to a lack of alternatives and the overwhelming use of plastic in everyday goods. These policies may be directed at requiring producers reliant on plastic to consider alternative biodegradable options for packaging. Alternative packaging options, together with policies that demand the use of less plastic can help consumers cut down on their plastic waste. Intensive community engagement is needed for behavioral change.
These goals of improving waste management systems, recycling, and better product design which is cognizant of the short life of disposable packaging and the reduction in the manufacturing of unnecessary single-use plastics, will help curb plastic waste. The cost of inaction is far too great to continue living as we have. It is time to make the change; it starts with you.
The writers are with CUTS International Accra, a public policy and consumer protection think tank ( www.cuts-accra.org )