July 21, 2010

A Plastic Bag for Your Thoughts

This post continues on from the earlier one: Rubbish Rubbish Everywhere, Ghana’s on the Brink

A stroll along any road in virtually any city or village in Ghana invites ugly scenes: plastic rubbish virtually everywhere. It’s one of the major complaints tourists have about traveling in Ghana.

I feel like plastic bags have become a status symbol here in Ghana. I’ll explain. It’s like a “gift with purchase” almost. As in, you purchased a bottle of water, here’s your free plastic bag with that. People are proud to carry handfuls of black plastic bags as though it’s a sign of progress like some small middle-developing nations purchase tiny cars to clog up the already crowded streets and emit yet more CO2 into the choking atmosphere.

When we shop in the market, we take our huge Shop Rite heavy duty bag and pile fruits and vegetables on top of each other inside. Despite protestations and pointing into our bag to demonstrate that we don’t use “rubbers,” traders don’t listen.

“Here’s a plastic bag anyway,” they seem to say, peeling off a plastic bag and handing it to us after we place the fruit in our big bag with all the other items.

We have to forcefully refuse this offer everywhere we go. In the pharmacy we’re offered a plastic bag with our little tiny box of medicine. In the store we’re offered a plastic bag with a small tin of milk.

And Ghanaians complain about being poor. Imagine how much money would be saved if no one handed out black plastic bags for a month. There’s a cost none of us needs when we buy food. Imagine the savings. If we’re paying 5 pesewas a plastic bag, say, and we consume one or two a day, that’s a saving of 10 pesewas a day. Now, where I live, that’s a lot of money for some folks. Apply that across the country and there is a whole lot of money that can be spent on food instead of plastic.

I have never seen anyone refuse a plastic bag. I remember as a kid the same thing in Australia. No one thought twice about taking a plastic bag for a packet of bread that was already packaged in plastic. That mentality changed with time and education. The same will have to happen here if, and this is the big if, the country values its environment.

That’s the question, though. Does anyone in Ghana really value their environment?

As I wrote in the first post, ‘While the Ugandan Government banned plastic bags in 2007, in Ghana pure water sales provide considerable employment and it is argued “the economic implications of a ban would just be too significant.”’

That is part of the problem. Most people cannot get access to clean drinking water. You risk all sorts of diseases by drinking straight from the tap. The alternative is plastic bottles, which are too expensive for most people and possibly even worse for the environment. So, until we can get access to clean drinking water, “pure water” it will have to be. (How pure it actually is, is anyone’s guess.)

This would not be the huge problem it is if these bags were taken home and recycled, or put in rubbish bins and recycled. One of these options has to become reality. If not, the plastic that someone throws away today will still be in the ground or water when the babies born this year, in 2010, go to university in 2030.

Pure water plastic bags will be around for 20 years, they don’t ever truly break down. And 40,000 of them are discarded every day in Accra central, alone. You can imagine the impact to the soil, rivers and water catchments across all of Ghana. God knows what type of poisons being leeched from plastic rubbish enter the water ways.

Fortunately, there are some rubbish collection services in Ghana, like Zoomlion, but they alone cannot cope with the problem.

The solution lies with each person not littering. And in either recycling or phasing out the use of plastic bags altogether. That’s the long-term solution. The Ugandan example.

Meanwhile, a lot of small and large NGOs have begun turning this rubbish into creative products. You can find them at Trashy Bags in Accra, a popular haunt for travelers and expats. They’ve been doing this for years now, and have become very good at it. All those Fan Yogo and Fan Ice wrappers, as well as pure water and juice wrappers, are sewn into bags and purses that make great personal gifts when you’re returning home, or for you yourself during your stay in Ghana.

Here is a link to Trashy Bags web site where you can browse products and get directions to their Accra show room. The baskets in the header image on this blog are also available there--but be quick.

And here is a link to the excellent Fantastic Plastic video about their story.

Image by Terence


  1. I love the concept of recycling a plastic bag into something beautiful. Plastic bags have been bothering me for a long time. They're just so wasteful. But it's good to see them being put toward such a creative use.

  2. Hi Tiffany,
    I know it's brilliant and there are quite a few organizations doing this in Ghana now. I think there is even a factory in Takoradi turning plastic bottles into some kind of pellet or rod used in building and they're exporting. I only had half the story, but someone else might know. Ultimately, I believe we have to phase plastic out, but while we're still using it, recycling it into useful and beautiful products is the best option I believe.
    Thank you! Gayle.


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