Ghana’s growing population, especially in urban centres, has over the years translated into the generation of huge amounts of solid waste. With our population estimated to hit approximately 50 million people by the year 2050, the quantities of solid waste generated is expected to also increase astronomically. In the absence of a paradigm shift to address the challenges with our waste management systems, the humongous solid waste quantities expected to be generated in the years ahead would literally swallow us up. With such a population, if each person generates 2.5 litres of solid waste daily, this means that our solid waste could fill up more than 70,000 14-cubic metre waste trucks each day. This amount of waste can fill up the entire football pitch of the Emirates Stadium to about the height of Mountain Kilimanjaro every year.
Due to the urbanizing trend shown by Ghana’s population over the years, a significant proportion of our waste is expected to be generated in cities. But the crucial question begging for answer is: with the dwindling landspace in city centres, where will this waste end up? Even with the meager quantities of wastes we are generating now, there are huge challenges in managing them. Certainly, if the current trend of landfilling all our waste is not reversed, there will be no space to handle the huge waste quantities that will be generated in the years ahead.
Solid waste in itself is a source of revenue and until as a country we make up our mind to consider it as such, we will perpetually struggle with its management. There are materials in our waste stream that could be used for several purposes. Why would Sweden import waste from Britain and Norway if indeed waste is a not resource? And that exactly is what the solid waste management systems in Ghana are lacking – they do not consider waste as a resource.
Throughout the country, the general practice is that private waste management companies are contracted to collect solid waste for local authorities (Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies) to pay for this service while in a few instances residents pay for waste collection.
Reportedly the Accra Metropolitan Assembly spends about US$ 3.45 million each year (GH¢ 6.7 million) on collection and transport of waste for disposal. This is one out of the 216 Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) across the country. Imagine how much money is pumped into waste collection in all these MMDAs each year. This practice, in my candid opinion, is a classical example of flushing money down the drain. Instead of selling the useful materials to recycling companies to generate some revenue, we delight in getting these resources landfilled at a huge cost to the nation. So how exactly can we reverse the current trend?
On top of the list is large scale investment in recycling technologies. We must take inspiration from the Accra Composting and Recycling Plant (ACARP) to provide a sustainable solution to the waste management challenges that have for so long a time wreaked a heavy toll on public and environmental health. This initiative is worth replicating in all ten regions across the country.
The Government needs to team up with private investors both locally and abroad to scale up this laudable initiative. But, establishing recycling plants should go hand in hand with a strong commitment to source separation of waste. Obviously, sorting of waste is a key pre-requisite for any recycling plant. Without this, there will be a huge financial cost to the operation of the plant since the mixed waste will have to be sorted either manually or mechanically at a cost.
The absence of a source separation scheme is among the key factors that threaten the sustainability of ACARP since it increases operational cost. Private waste management companies stand to gain most if this is done and therefore they must take the lead on that. Instead of collecting mixed waste from households for disposal, residents must be incentivized by being given discounts for their monthly fees just for sorting their waste. When this is done, the valuable items can then be sold to recycling companies for extra income. Buy-back stalls can also be mounted at vantage points in cities for recycling companies to buy sorted waste items from the general public. This means that, people will actually be making money from their waste.
Another unfortunate practice that continually dwarfs efforts to keep our cities clean is street littering. I have come across numerous opinions that put the blame at the doorstep of the general public for their poor attitude towards the environment. But if I may ask, how many waste bins are located in public places in our cities? And even if they are, are they strategically positioned to enable people identify or access them? In my opinion, I believe strongly that providing adequate waste bins at vantage points in our cities, educating the public to use them and instituting measures to empty them frequently would go a long way to curb the practice. When this is done, those who litter the streets will have no excuse doing so, unless of course they are bent on doing that. Such caliber of people must be made to face the full rigours of the law.
Moreover, creating an enabling environment for private sector involvement in waste management is very crucial. Our Ghanaian culture frowns on waste and regards its management as a job without any prestige. That is why medical doctors are held in high esteem than waste managers. But in a country with the top ten diseases reported at Out-Patient Departments (OPDs) related to poor sanitation, I believe the burden on medical doctors will be significantly reduced if we paid much attention to keeping our environment clean.
It is baffling that we pay so much attention to curing diseases than preventing them. Can you imagine how much money we can save from the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) if sanitation issues are addressed? Consequently, entrepreneurs with businesses in the field of waste management should be given the needed support through tax breaks, reduced interests on loans and technical support to attract more investors. This is because, if their businesses thrive, it will go a long way to address the waste canker in our society.
The last suggestion I would give is what I call, the all hands on deck approach. Over the years, we have left the task of waste management into the hands of engineers and other technical people. Unfortunately, they have failed to achieve the desired results. Indeed, waste management is broader than we think. In order to be successful, it must comprise, among others, social scientists, fine artists, information communication technologists, financial analysts, legal practitioners and researchers. Because, as of now, what exactly makes a lunatic litter the environment the same way as sane person remains a mystery to be resolved but the social scientists can find an answer to that and other social aspects of waste management.
Fine artists can create stunning products from our waste stream to generate revenue and information communication technologists can develop the most appropriate mechanisms to reach the general public with useful messages on waste management. Financial analysts can make projections on how much revenues we can generate from our waste based on various scenarios whilst legal practitioners can advice on the necessary laws to be put in place to improve waste management. Above all, researchers can provide the necessary foundation to inform every decision we make regarding waste management. This, we must not forget.
Until we appreciate the perils that await us in the near future due to our lackadaisical approach to waste management and begin to improve on the status quo from now, the cost of salvaging ourselves from the abyss we will put ourselves in will be so unbearable. God bless our homeland Ghana!
The author is a Lecturer at the Department of Environmental Health and Sanitation in the University of Education, Winneba. Email: [email protected]