In Yendi, in the Northern Region of Ghana, the government and the people are still developing infrastructure including waste collection systems. Like many developing regions in the world, the waste created really has nowhere to go. It ends up in fields, on farms, and in the waterways. This blocks the rain water from moving to the natural valley on the outside of town. The city depends on this river valley for potable water throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for malaria and other waterborne diseases to increase, harms crop production, and, especially during the driest part of the year, significantly decreases the available water for the city to process for its citizens, which can even stop public availability. Families, including children, end up having to walk miles a day during these months just to have water to drink.
Coming into Ghana, seeing the incredible amount of inorganic waste littered or unprocessed was a huge shock. But as I have researched and talked with friends, I have begun to get a clearer picture of the roots of the problem. Plastic as a commodity has only been around for about 100 years, and in Ghana for far less time. Before the presence of inorganic waste creation, especially in the rural communities, just tossing waste on the ground was no problem. Anything you made or used was decomposed in a relatively short amount of time and became part of the earth once again. So when items such as plastic and other inorganics were introduced people assumed the same. Why think any differently?
Now, just a few decades later, people are realizing the truth, but they have very little process or means for decreasing this waste production, for changing this pattern, or for creating solutions. But this is changing. Like many places around the world, Ghanaians are increasingly becoming aware of the issue and finding answers. But, seeing the trash and litter in the extreme amounts here in Ghana has really opened my eyes to the incredible need for attitudinal change of everyone around the world. (Pictured right: using plastics in fence-making.)
I know there are people reading this who have seen the photos of landfills. They've seen the images of children and the impoverished digging through the rubbish or even living in it. They've seen the statistics on the dying sea life, the impossibility of current use sustainability, and the warnings from scientists. But, in my experience, this hasn't changed most people's patterns, including my own until recently, in any significant way. And, in my opinion, this comes down to a few different things. I think in developed countries with the necessary infrastructure the trash we create goes in a bag and bin and then "disappears." It's taken to a dump away from view and forgotten about. But, there are literal mountains of garbage all around the world (for example Mount Trashmore and the Great Pacific garbage patch.) In day-to-day life, we have grown used to using these products for short-term convenience with no thought to long-term effect. We consume far more than we need and are content with pushing the negative costs aside. Also, I think companies that produce plastic and other inorganic waste don't care about the planet, and I don't think they don't care about you. I think they are focused on short-term gain more than Mother Earth. Not only do I think their action are selfish, but I see these businesses wielding immense power over our government and the education of the general public on the true imminence of this problem. And it is imminent.
In the ocean, there is currently an estimated eight million tons of waste. That's enough to fill five grocery bags for every foot of coastline. That doesn't include what is on land, and that number is growing by millions of pounds every year. This also doesn't include the pollution from oil, electricity, water use, mining, deforestation, and so many other activities. Even if you don't accept climate change science, you have to realize that this is not sustainable. This is an issue of self-preservation as well as environmental compassion. We cannot continue to consume with no consequence. We cannot continue to treat this planet like our space and resources are unlimited.
So what do we do?
We decide to change our habits. We become informed and conscientious. We support business, science, and diplomacy that aim to attain a sustainable world. We decide to appreciate and respect what we have. We accept our personal responsibility. We strive for a greener, more beautiful tomorrow.
And there are innumerable solutions. We all know the three R's: reduce, reuse, recycle. These are so important, but it can go beyond this. It has to go beyond this. There are companies and organizations working hard to innovate, educate, and create new ways to process the waste we make, clean up the old, and innovate biodegradable technologies. This can and should look different in every region and every country. In order for work to be truly effective, it must be individualized to the culture, people, and needs. In places like the US, this comes down to consuming considerably less, using the recycling provided, and voting for governmental, environmentally-conscious regulations.
In countries like Ghana, people are finding secondary uses for the waste (rope, backpacks, etc), using organic materials like leaves to wrap food (pictured left), and starting grassroots initiatives that can potentially produce work for people in their communities. Currently, HA: Ghana volunteer Lukeman and I have been working through such ideas with the hope of helping people create income and clean their neighborhoods by using the plastics as building material. Ghanaians are creative, intuitive, hard-working people. They want to create a community that is clean, efficient, and healthy. I believe in people. I believe that we can have a green, wonderful, futuristic world that cares for our posterity and makes nature a priority. But, this will take work. This will require keeping each other and our leadership accountable. This will take sacrifice. This planet, our planet, is worth it.