Rubbish thoughts (Part 1)

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Thoughts on the National Sanitation Campaign

The Government’s launch of the National Sanitation Campaign is the most recent government-led initiative to address the beast that is solid waste management in Ghana. Any objective observer of the waste management landscape in Ghana, especially in the urban metropolises of Accra and Kumasi, will conclude that successive governments have been largely inept at facilitating a radical transformation of the waste sector.

Focusing on Accra alone, recent studies reveal that majority of the city’s inhabitants still cannot claim to have access to a well-established waste collection service, whereas authorities have been slow at providing additional landfill sites to accommodate the approximately 2,500 tonnes of waste generated daily. Likewise, though representing a significant proportion of waste arisings in Accra, the establishment of a concrete framework for the separate collection of organic waste for value extraction has been tepid. With the prevalence of rubbish on our streets and the ubiquity open sewers, it is of no surprise that Accra is a spectacularly smelly, unhygienic urban enclave with the ever-present risk of diseases such as malaria and cholera.

Ghana�s plastic waste

Like many nationally sensitive issues in Ghana, the new National Sanitation Campaign has not been entirely devoid of debates based on political leanings. Because such discourse by their nature is more driven by the desire to score political points as opposed to the general welfare of citizens, they are inherently limited at providing a conducive environment for sober, objective assessment. Also, because of successive governments’ chequered record at fostering trust within the populace due to the bungling of public initiatives, there is a lurking fear that the high ideals of this new initiative will become captive to the classic Ghanaian political malfeasance.

Nonetheless, the challenges faced in Ghana in terms of solid waste management and the governmental response to it are not wholly insurmountable.They are inherently a human capital problem, and as such, the source of the problem is simultaneously also the source of the spark needed for a positive detour. Hence, the long-term sustainability of the National Sanitation Campaign will be significantly dependent on its ability to empower human capital to more efficiently grapple with waste management challenges. To achieve this, certain fundamental concepts and systems are needed.

Paradigm shift in the concept of waste

At the core of any national sanitation, the drive should be a mission to facilitate a paradigm shift in the respective society’s perception of waste. In an ideal world, so-called “waste” is considered a misplaced resource whose value is not being exploited and, as such, requires redirection towards an appropriate destination for value extraction. However, in contemporary Ghana, from an early age, we are conditioned to generally see waste as primarily a nuisance, materials of no or very low value, “Borla” in local parlance. This mindset is strongly linked to the tendency amongst individuals to deprioritise appropriate channels of waste disposal at the point of generation and along the waste supply chain.

From the tro-tro passenger that throws out an empty water sachet onto the road to the 'chop bar' kitchen staff that dump food waste that could be composted into bins mixed in with inorganic waste materials destined for landfills, this character trait is endemic across all facets of the social fabric. Though, admittedly, the absence of waste collection infrastructure is an important contributory factor, the nonchalance with which the average citizen deals with waste stems from this national character trait.

Hence, a massive effort is needed in facilitating behavioural change in waste management based on highlighting value extraction. Though there may be room for the establishment of new platforms to achieve this goal, an emphasis on expanding the technical and financial capacity of the National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE) to include waste management sensitisation is likely to be a more efficient route. As the primary state institution for delivering civic education, the NCCE has a track record of engaging with citizens on important social issues. Emphasis also needs to be placed on children and the youth, a key demographic group, as part of the education campaign. This is because inculcating a value extraction-based appreciation of waste early in life is likely to strengthen the sustainability of behavioural change initiatives. Other key demographic groups that should be engaged include the commercial and industrial sectors, religious organisations and slum dwellers.

Economic gain – a catalyst for change

Education on its own, however, is unlikely to make any major dent to the waste management challenge in a climate of weak regulatory and local government enforcement. Any attempt to develop a narrative on waste management behavioural change as a patriotic ideal to be achieved by all and sundry is likely to be, at best, semi-potent in terms of resonating with the public. The probability of success will increase, however, if moral suasion is intimately tied with efforts to create a conducive environment for broader private sector participation in the waste management sector. With a burgeoning youth population, high levels of unemployment and the exploitation of economic desperation by political parties via vigilante groups (a perplexing misnomer), encouraging private sector participation in the waste management sector would create relatively sustainable economic opportunities along the waste supply chain, whilst simultaneously improving human and environmental health. The Government, working in partnership with important stakeholders such as financial institutions, tertiary institutions and insurance firms, should drive policies which facilitate large-scale private sector investment in waste infrastructure, especially in the collection, recycling and treatment. For example, special efforts to mandate the use of organic compost in the cash crop sector would not only aid in reducing Ghana’s dependence on expensively imported chemical fertiliser but would also create agreeable market conditions for the investment in the segregation and composting of organic waste by private stakeholders. The need for quickly expanding the waste collection in urban areas and the possibility for value extraction through reuse and recycling also has the added advantage of enabling the participation of informal small and medium enterprises in the waste management sector. The creation of waste business incubators in areas experiencing both high levels of unemployment and poor sanitation would promote the harnessing of the immense human capital that unfortunately has been allowed to remain dormant. The inhabitants of economically forgotten areas of Ghana, especially in urban slums, deserve a shot at merit-based economic progress and, under the right conditions, the waste management sector could offer a sustainable channel to wealth creation. Some of these important “right conditions” include the insulation of both government policies and the targeting of beneficiaries of these policies from undue party-political influence, transparency in public sector procurement and the impartial enforcement of existing and future sanitation regulations.

Waste data is key

Another crucial element for ushering in a positive change in the state of sanitation in Ghana is the elevation of waste data to a position of critical national importance. The collection of waste data – waste generation tonnages, number and location of waste producers, service cost data, etc. – is key to the successful operation of private sector stakeholders. It is also an essential tool for shaping government policy on sanitation and waste management. For the private sector, having access to waste data is necessary for assessing investment decisions. For example, the commercial viability of a waste to energy facility is tied to the level of waste that could be supplied to the facility. Hence, data on waste generation trends for the proposed areas for waste supply is critical. Likewise, for public authorities, waste data is essential for planning waste management services most attuned to the needs of both citizens and waste sector stakeholders. Therefore, local authorities that collate reliable data on the material composition of waste being generated, for example, would be better placed at determining what type of collection services would be most ideal. 

Hence, if your municipal authority determines that a sizable proportion of its waste generation is made up of plastic, it can build a case for their separate collection and reprocessing either by informal SMEs, formal waste management companies or a combination of both. Similarly, data collation would allow public authorities to better monitor the flow of waste along the supply chain. This is particularly important as the introduction of waste data collation and tracking systems would enable agencies such as the EPA to identify registered waste sector stakeholders that engage in the illicit disposal of waste, provided these systems are also incorporated into approved treatment and disposal facilities. The government would also benefit from being able to assess the impact of its policies on the sector, especially policies aimed at reducing the generation of specific problematic waste materials.

Exercising citizen power

With President Akuffo-Addo’s inaugural call for a more engaged citizenry, it behoves citizens of every calibre to challenge the Presidency and all other operatives involved in the business of governance to meet the central demand of the electorate, the betterment of national welfare. The improvement of the state of solid waste management across Ghana is directly connected to this goal. Hence, it is essential that the investment of time and resources into addressing waste management challenges is judiciously executed through the appropriate framing of the prevailing hurdles and the critical analysis of the solutions needed. The above points raised are but a sample of some of the key issues that must be considered by persons interested in resolving our current “borla” quandary.