Plastic Waste: What’s All the Fuss About?

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

You may have probably come across a post showing animals who died as a result of plastic ingestion, or seen beaches littered with plastic, or drains choked with plastic such that water cannot freely flow through them.

Single-use plastics are now one of the most challenging environmental problems in recent times. There has been increased concern over the use of plastic due to a growing awareness of its impacts on the environment, wildlife and human health. However, plastics have become an important part of our daily lives. Think about the bottles/sachets of water you consume daily; the soft drinks that come in plastic bottles and the plastic bag you are given whenever you purchase an item from the supermarket. Plastic has certain properties that make it the preferred option for packaging. Plastic is lightweight, durable, versatile and portable. It is also relatively cheaper and considered more hygienic than traditional methods of packaging such as paper and leaves.

But have you ever stopped to think of what happens to these plastics when you dispose of them?

In Ghana specifically, piles of plastic waste littering the streets and beaches is a familiar sight. As at 2018, the country was reported to import about 2.5 metric million tonnes of plastic annually. Seventy-three percent (73%) of this figure ends up as waste (i.e. about 1.8 million metric tonnes) and is either disposed of indiscriminately or on landfill sites or burnt. Both methods of dealing with plastic waste in the country are unsustainable — this is why.

Burning is known to cause the release of major greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. Burning also releases toxins which are harmful to human health in the long-run.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Disposing of plastics, is a futile exercise because plastics are generally non-biodegradable, consequently, they accumulate over the years creating problems for human beings, wildlife and the natural environment. While most plastics are single-use, they can remain in the environment for about 500 years, meaning that they cannot be eliminated as easily as they are used.

In the last two decades, most of the inland water bodies and the ocean bordering the southern part of the country have been heavily polluted with plastic. Some of this plastic waste breaks down into smaller components called micro plastics. These are ingested by marine animals, and in turn ingested by humans through the food chain. Consumption of micro plastics over time could ultimately lead to long-term health complications like cancer, birth defects and immune/reproductive system disorders.

Recent projections also suggest that by the year 2050, there would be more plastics in the ocean than fish.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Beyond the fact that plastic litter is unsightly, it has adverse effects on both humans and wildlife. Similar to marine animals, terrestrial animals ingest plastics or get entangled with them, leading to suffocation, starvation and eventually death.

Plastic waste on landfill sites begin to leak toxins into the underlying soil, and could potentially contaminate nearby underground water rendering such water unwholesome.

In addition, plastic waste finds its way into open/uncovered drains, preventing the free flow of water. This is made worse during the rainy season where plastic waste clogs up drains and prevents heavy rains from flowing through drains, causing floods and displacing many people.

Plastic waste is also able to hold stagnant water which serves as a suitable breeding ground for mosquitoes, the vectors responsible for the spread of the fatal disease malaria.

The scale of plastic waste generation in the country is a worrying trend. What is the way forward? Watch this space for the next article which discusses practical ways of dealing with this problem.

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