In Conversation with Emmanuel Bekoe, a Ghanaian environmentalist

Emmanuel Bekoe is a Ghanaian environmentalist and founder of Astute Volunteers Ghana. Right for Education spoke with him about the state of plastic pollution in Accra, and how to alleviate the problem.

R:Ed: Could you tell us about yourself and your work?

My name is Emmanuel Bekoe. I live in Accra, Ghana and I founded Astute Volunteers Ghana. The organization aims to tackle the plastic waste challenges in Accra and other parts of Ghana.

R:Ed: Could you tell us about the current state of plastic pollution in Accra and in Ghana?

We currently generate about 1 million metric tons of plastic waste per annum in Ghana. In Accra, this issue particularly affects our beaches and our eco-marine system. When I used to go to the beach before COVID-19 and I wanted to go into the water, it was hard to do so because of the amount of waste.

This problem is not just limited to beaches. When you are driving on the street, you see plastic flying everywhere. There is also a lot of pollution in the gutters of the drains, which can cause severe flooding. A few years ago, there was a fire in one of the dirtiest places in Accra (near the Dr Kwame Nkrumah interchange) which caused the death of 125 people – and this spread because of plastic pollution. I decided to try to tackle this issue through the organization I founded.

R:Ed: Given the importance of this issue, how can we tackle the root causes of plastic pollution?

First of all, education is paramount. Many people do not know how to recycle or what to do with plastics. Young people, in particular, need to know how to take care better of the environment. We are therefore trying to work with the Ministry of Education in Ghana to incorporate environmental studies into students’ curriculum. Until then, as a volunteer organization, we are training young people to help reduce plastic pollution. In addition to education, we also need better technology to recycle plastics. We cannot recycle everything, so we need innovative ways of repurposing the rest.

Secondly, we also need to think about our use of ‘Pure Water’ bags. They are cheap and at the same time they also provide every person in Ghana with a safe, clean and portable source of drinking water. However, they are also the most common plastic waste you see on the street when you step out of your home. Mechanised community boreholes or wells are an important alternative to ‘Pure Water’ plastic rubbers. They provide people with easy access to clean and free drinking water, while reducing the amount of plastic waste we generate. Part of our work involves repairing or installing these boreholes.

R:Ed: What is the balance between the individual’s responsibility versus corporate and government action?

Both are very important in reducing the levels of plastic waste. However, individuals can only start to take responsibility when they have been educated on the importance of plastic recycling and when corporations or the government put more systems in place, such as waste disposal points in towns or urban centres.

There are many plastic recycling factories in Accra, but the problem is that demand for plastic is high. People do not know about the importance of recycling, so they contribute to plastic pollution. The government could therefore pass a bill taxing plastic purchases. Strict enforcement measures need to be put in place. Until then, even if they build more bins on the streets, the problem will persist. This is why education is so important.

R:Ed: Which countries in Africa have taken steps towards tackling plastic pollution? What are some African success stories?

I think Rwanda is tackling this issue well. Every morning people clean the beach, the drains, and the gutters. This also contributes to employment in the country. The government has many eco-friendly policies in place as well. Outside of Africa, the US, the UK and Malaysia are positive examples.

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