Develop(ing) VII: Environmental Sustainability

This blog is inspired by Ghana.

I grew up in a household that valued, sometimes to my embarrassment as a five-year old, environmental resourcefulness. My dad grew up in the 60s and spent some time living in a no-tech community, my mum wanted to save on costs.  I grew up in a house that used calico shopping bags before Coles brought out the 14c paper bags that refunded you 2c with each use.  And that was five years before "Green Bags" made it on to the market.  I grew up so moved by the environment that my very first email account (opened at age 8) was treelife@freemail.com.

Over the years, it has become easier to be taken up in the whirlwind addiction that is overconsumerism, but I do always tend towards the more environmentally friendly option and kick myself every time I feel I made a poor decision. I like to reduce packaging and often abstain from purchasing a hot drink solely because I don't want to waste the paper cup.

It was therefore a huge shock when I landed in Ghana to see waste - plastic bags, drink bottles and sachets, food wrappers and household scraps - strewn across the side of the road, across the natural landscape and throughout the cities.  Every time I purchased a 10 pesewa piece of fried yam, it would come in a black plastic bag whether I liked it or not. Often, because I was a foreigner, I would get two bags. And every person who would purchase a piece of yam that day would get a bag. There were very few places around town where I could deposit my waste and, as it turned out, even the place I stayed seemed to dump its rubbish outside and burn it periodically.

Driving through farming areas and seeing the animals surround us, the chickens are so tiny and the goats so skinny. The soil seems so meagre - it's so dusty here that I can't imagine the crops growing anything.  I wonder at how much effort and time is wasted as crops are fruitlessly sown only to yield little. I wonder how much water tanks, irrigation and more efficient farming practices would help.

It wasn't all that infrequently that you would see trucks overladen with produce topple, a whole tray of food now lost and left for further vehicles to drive over. The trucks were in such poor condition that they couldn't cope with the roads, and there was little in the way of train lines on which one could transport these goods.

Throughout the Ghana journey, I worried about how little infrastructure was available for environmental sustainability. I did see some positive signs - the solar cells in a doctor's clinic, the recycled soft-drink bottles at many venues. What saddens me the most is that it seems the waste is more in an effort to emulate how we live in the West than a desire to be wasteful. In an effort to develop, the beauty of Ghana is being lost.

For me, it was constantly worrying how much the rubbish affected health outcomes. A backlog of rubbish in the waterways leads to stagnant water bodies, the perfect breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitos. Rubbish in waterways dirties the water supply. Putting hot food in cheap plastic bags leads to ingestion of noxious gases. The list goes on and on.

Environmental sustainability takes strong governmental policy, a respect and understanding of the environment and easily actionable steps. I hope Ghana can get there.

Often, driving past the miles and miles of beautiful landscape that had rubbish as frosting, I wanted to clean it up, one piece of rubbish at a time, just as I did the yard in primary school.


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