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Environmental Pollution Korle Lagoon Livelihoods Plastic Pollution Society

Plastic Pollution in Ghana: Urban Trash Heroes

Photographs of urban poor men who risk it all to swim in the heavily polluted Korle Lagoon to collect plastic waste, which they sell for pennies.

June 26, 2020

An urban poor man in Ghana swims in a heavily polluted lagoon to collect plastics to sell. Ghana is facing a severe plastic pollution crisis. Copyright © 2020 Muntaka Chasant

Photographs of urban poor men who risk it all to swim in the heavily polluted Korle Lagoon to collect plastic waste, which they sell for pennies.

If you are a regular reader of the United Kingdom’s leading tabloid newspaper The SUN, then there’s a small chance you probably saw some of the photographs1 on this page on their homepage a couple of weeks ago. 

Yes, shocking photographs!

The tragic reality of human suffering in Accra’s (Ghana’s capital city) harsh urban environment should fill everyone’s heart with sorrow.

Here, I will briefly explain the context of these photographs.

Plastic Pollution And The Urban Poor

Cities, unfriendly to the urban poor, have been historically perceived as a space for the urban elites. 

Marginalized and excluded, the role the urban poor play in society frequently gets lost in stereotypes and narratives that disregard their contribution to the community in which they live.

Coexisting side by side with the destitute in an urban decay setting, wealthy city dwellers, mostly insulated from harsh urban realities, rarely give much thought to how the actions of the city’s poor impact their lives.

Accra’s urban poor roam across dumpsites, streets, polluted waterways, and homes to recover waste recyclables generated mainly by the city’s affluent population. But their role is not recognized and appreciated.

Scavengers — involving people of all ages and gender — play a leading role in the informal plastic recovery business in Ghana. They make significant economic and environmental contributions.

Pickers and collectors help to reduce waste, cost of cleanups, and supply secondary materials to industries.

Striving on the margins does not negate the substance of the role of the urban poor in society. Their stories are just as important as any of us.

Descending Into The Depth

Kwabena Akese (pictured above), 25 years, is an urban poor who spends some of his days looking forward to the rain to cause the plastic waste dumped in Accra’s waterways to flow into the Korle Lagoon through the Odaw River.

The Korle Lagoon is a major outlet to the sea for Accra, collecting all kinds of debris, including solid waste, from the city’s drainage systems.

Only a tiny fraction of the plastics that enter the ocean floats. The majority are buried on the seafloor. Below are plastics coming from Accra’s hinterlands during a rainfall:

Here are the plastics heading for the ocean behind a man using a pot as an umbrella (read about this odd event in the immediate link below) during a rainfall.

RELATED: Smoking In The Rain

Risking injury, Kwabena descends into the heavily polluted lagoon to collect polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, which he sells for pennies.

Kwabena’s livelihood depends on the plastics.

He lost his father when he was just 9 years old, and moved to Accra from Nyarga in the Upper Eastern part of Ghana in 2018, to search for economic opportunities.

Ghana’s Upper East Region had the highest unemployment rate2 in Ghana in 2015.

Thousands of young people escape hunger and poverty in Ghana’s rural hinterlands to Accra in search of economic opportunities every year. With no education at all, many of them end up in the informal sector where they engage in hazardous work.

Not that it matters that some of them do not have an education. Unemployment rate in Ghana is higher for people with education than those without education.3

Only 3.1% of Ghana’s population 3 years and older have a Bachelor’s degree. A third (32.8%)4 of the population 3 years and older have only managed to obtain a primary level education.

More than half a million people aged 15 years and older are in informal employment in the Greater Accra Region area alone.

Plastic Crisis: Journey Of A Man

Here, let’s tag along to see where Kwabena is headed and what’s happening there.

Kwabena has some plastics and now heads over to a dumpsite about a kilometer away.

The journey continues.

Kwabena is now at a dumpsite where recyclers and middlemen come to buy recovered plastics from scavengers.

Kwabena’s pushing it to find a space to dump his treasures.

Still pushing it.

Finally.

What’s next?

The coronavirus pandemic has crippled small plastic recycling efforts. Is the plastic situation going to get worse?

Kwabena is Also An Aspiring Musician 

Kwabena is also an aspiring musician and lives inside the Sodom and Gomorrah (Agbogbloshie) slum. He calls himself ‘B-Town.’

He normally heads to a nearby recording studio after making enough to live through the day.

I caught up with him another time below:

Are you able to spot Kwabena in the sea of plastics?

Tagging along, I followed him after the plastic business to a small wooden shack recording studio inside the Sodom and Gomorrah (Agbogbloshie) slum to see him rehearse.

Here’s one in monochrome with a retro vibe. Album cover worthy?

Kwabena seemed troubled by why ‘women tend to be more attracted to wealthy men’ in his song, and at some point asked what I thought of his lyrics.

Responding, we explored the link between wealth and fertility from an evolutionary standpoint, explaining along the lines to him that: “Coupling pressures seem to be driven by reproduction, and that wealthy men tend to have the excess resources required to provide economic security for women and their offsprings. But this trend is changing in gender-equitable societies. You’ll probably prefer a spouse with a better financial prospect if you had to get pregnant multiple times and spend a significant chunk of your life raising children.”

We touched on several other gender myths in his lyrics and came to an understanding. I had wanted to mix in Baumeister and Vohs’ controversial sexual economics theory5, but I thought that would be way too many ideas to introduce in a short period.

He found this line of conversation interesting and even reached out later to ask more questions.

Kwebena has no education at all.

Ghana’s Statistical Service estimates that around 40% of Ghana’s population aged 15 – 35 years have no education at all.

He has two ‘mastered’ songs so far and hopes to be able to get someone to give his message a chance.

Joseph Nunoo A.K.A. Pizzaro

Nicknamed ‘Pizzaro,’ Joseph Nunoo, 35 years, has the same story as Kwabena: an alienated man in Accra’s harsh environment.

From the nearby Korle Gonno, Joseph is a full-time scavenger, and happy to see fresh plastic waste floating on the Korle Lagoon. For him, this means money.

He dropped out of school at the Junior Secondary School (high school) level more than 20 years ago. He played volleyball in school and would love to go back to playing again.

Lost youth, yearning for the innocence of childhood, and the anguish of striving for a place in a tough environment underscored the theme of Joseph’s heart-rending story of growing up in Accra amid scarcity and deprivation. But he told it with a smile and without bitterness.

“I didn’t realize life was going to be this tough,” Joseph said to me.

“I miss my childhood and would love to go back and play volleyball on the beach once again.”

Joseph’s story filled my eyes with tears.

“I would love to be a driver,” He told me when I asked if there was anything else he’d like to do.

Supporting Kwabena and Joseph

Both Joseph and Kwabena have asked me to find them a job. I’d give them one in a heartbeat if I had any available.

If you read this and you are in a position to secure them befitting employment, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via the contact form on this website or the email address at the bottom of this page.

What Are The Risks Involved?

Kwabena, Joseph and the others risk serious injury by descending into one of the most polluted water bodies on earth to collect plastics to sell for food and clothes.

Broken cathode-ray tube (CRT) glasses and other heavy metals — from the nearby Agbogbloshie scrapyard — all get washed into the lagoon when it rains.

Heavy rainfall causes the lagoon to overflow over the edges, collecting broken leaded CRT glass and other discarded e-waste parts left along its banks.

The photographs below are just by the Korle Lagoon and not too far from where Kwabena, Joseph and the others collect plastics.

RELATED: A Child Labour Scene

No Accra resident familiar with the Korle Lagoon will be happy at the sight of men swimming in the heavily polluted water collecting materials to sell for sustenance.

How Much Do They Sell the Plastics?

There were inconsistent responses when I asked various people involved in the plastic picking business. Some said they sold the plastics for GH₵0.50 (around $0.08) per kilo, while others were happy to tell me they get a little more at GH₵1.00 ($0.17) per kilo.

The price probably depends on the plastic’s quality.

They now have a bunch of plastics and no buyers. The coronavirus pandemic has severely impacted their livelihoods.

Is it all worth it?

Some Global Plastic Pollution Statistics

The think tank Future Agenda estimates that more than 270 million tonnes of plastic waste6 is generated worldwide each year. 

Jambeck and other researchers in a 2015 study7 estimate that more than 10 million tonnes of the generated plastics worldwide enter the ocean each year, with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation8 concerned that there may be more plastics — by weight — than fish in the ocean by 2050.

Another study in 2017 involving Jenna Jambeck and Roland Geyer9 found that 55% of plastic waste generated worldwide in 2015 were improperly discarded. 

There are probably more than 150 million tonnes of plastics in the ocean, the Ocean Conservancy estimates10 show.

Plastic Pollution In Ghana Statistics

Ghana generates around 1 million tonnes of plastics every year, according to a UNDP report11. Up to 5% are recycled. The rest accumulates in the environment, with nearly 30% ending up in the ocean.

Plastic Pollution in Ghana: Korle Lagoon Plastic Waste Video

There, plastic waste floating on the surface of the Korle Lagoon. Heading for the ocean (Gulf of Guinea).

What is The Way Forward?

Water quality is a major concern in many developing countries.

Piped water supply in Ghana is perceived as contaminated or unsafe, driving the use of sachet and bottled water.

Would improving water supply and making it safe cut sachet and plastic water bottles use? Would you transition?

Leave your comment below to join the conversation.

Copyright © 2020 Muntaka Chasant

Sources

  1. https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/11794219/shocking-pics-show-men-wading-through-river-absolutely-choc-a-block-with-rubbish-as-they-collect-plastic-in-ghana/
  2. https://statsghana.gov.gh/gssmain/fileUpload/Demography/LFS%20REPORT_fianl_21-3-17.pdf
  3. ibid
  4. ibid
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15582858/
  6. https://www.futureagenda.org/foresights/plastic-oceans/
  7. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768?ijkey=BXtBaPzbQgagE&keytype=ref&siteid=sci
  8. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/EllenMacArthurFoundation_NewPlasticsEconomy_26-1-2016.pdf
  9. https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782
  10. https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/full-report-stemming-the.pdf
  11. https://www.gh.undp.org/content/ghana/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2019/behavioural-change-is-critical-in-addressing-plastic-menace.html

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