Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Untapped Helper in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation in Ghana – Waste Management (2)

"Waste equals food."— William McDonough

The introductory quote appears simple, however embedded in this statement by William McDonough is a wealth of knowledge and deep understanding. We work hard as humans to put food on our tables. We enjoy our meals and gain vital nutrients to live on. We then convert the unused parts and excess to ‘waste’. The waste if properly managed can provide more food in terms of providing work for persons who manage the waste to produce energy (for the use of society as a whole) or income which will in turn be used to purchase food. The cycle can be beneficial if waste is exploited adequately. There is an even more exciting twist to this – the waste can be managed to ameliorate the likely impact of climate change.

Waste management is a broad subject and a specialized area that requires expert advice. So this piece is by no means meant to be exhaustive but it does raise awareness that waste can be put to good use and should not be left to engulf our beautiful nation and create problems such as ground and surface water pollution, flooding, air pollution and the introduction of disease causing agents that affect the human health of a country’s populace. These impacts have tremendous socio - cultural, economic and environmental implications.

I grew up hearing that cleanliness is next to Godliness and Ghana is one religious country! If we practiced what we preached as the singer Barry White (May his soul rest in peace) asked his loved one to do in his song titled Practice What You Preach, our nation would have been one clean country. It is pathetic to see people sweep and clean their rooms only to dump the rubbish in drains with the hope that the rains will carry it away; oh or that Zoomlion will come and continue. Well, for those of us who do that I am sorry to say that Zoomlion is not a non – profit organization and resides not in our mosquito infested communities in person.

With Ghana’s increasing population and the rising trend in consumerism more waste will be generated inevitably. Mechanisms of using the waste generated for profit is therefore paramount. There are different forms of waste – electronic waste, municipal solid waste, industrial waste, residential waste, commercial waste, biodegradable waste etc and each type will require a special approach in management.
Ghana should move away from looking for dumping sites and landfills (which lumps up everything and deposits it at one place till the site can take no more) and begin to build waste management plants. It would save the authorities involved ,the headache of where to go next when a dump site is full and they would not have to worry about NIMBY (not in my backyard).

Most interestingly, waste management could play a critical role in climate change adaptation and mitigation. What is the big issue and the role of Waste in Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation?

Climate change is generally defined as a change in the statistical properties of the climate system when considered over long periods of time, regardless of cause. In recent times however, the term has been used to refer more specifically to climate change caused by human activity, as opposed to changes in climate that may have resulted as part of Earth's natural processes. To put the potential role of waste into perspective, permit me to delve into the terms global warming, greenhouse effect and define what exactly a greenhouse gas is.

Global warming is the rise in the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans since the late 19th century, and its projected continuation. The process may not have been a problem if there was no evidence that the process is being altered by anthropogenic factors such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. These and other human activities are increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and trapping the gases in the atmosphere. So what are greenhouse gases and their effects?

Greenhouse gases (GHG) are gases in an atmosphere that absorb and emit radiation within the thermal infrared range. The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. The greenhouse gases absorb thermal radiation from planetary surfaces and re-radiate in all directions. Why is this bad? This process means that when there is an increase in greenhouse gases, more thermal radiation is absorbed for re-radiation increasing the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans and hastens the process of climate change.

Where does waste management come in?
Well, this is where and how; during decomposition of biodegradable waste, green house gases are emitted. When oxygen is available the main landfill gas produced is carbon dioxide, but in anaerobic conditions around half the emissions are methane. Methane is known to be the second of the ‘basket’ of greenhouse gases and is much more potent than carbon dioxide per unit. Biodegradable waste needs therefore to be better managed. This is where the opportunity comes in. Ghana produces a lot of bio - degradable waste. Burning our waste as is done in most part of the country will not help as it also increases the emission of GHG’s. Waste prevention and recycling (including composting) divert organic wastes from landfills and reduces the amount of methane released when decomposition takes place.

What can be done?
It will be prudent to develop or to learn from engineering examples that have worked to imposes strict engineering requirements on landfill sites to capture these gases. Waste can be turned into wealth by increasing recycling, composting and recovery of energy from waste.

•Ghana should develop policies and strategies for sustainable waste management.
The waste policies should focus on sustainable resource management, including the need to reduce the quantity of waste produced and to move from waste disposal to waste processing.

•Re-cycling, composting and waste separation should be given due attention and consideration.
Recycling saves energy. Manufacturing goods from recycled materials typically requires less energy than producing goods from virgin materials.

Waste prevention is more effective.
When people reuse things or when products are made with less material, less energy is needed to extract, transport, and process raw materials and to manufacture products. The payoff? When energy demand decreases, fewer fossil fuels are burned and less carbon dioxide is emitted to the atmosphere.

The one most important factor that will determine the success of this quest is the need for people to change. Behavioral change and a shift in the paradigm of Ghanaians is important because it is only when we realize that it is in our own interest to properly manage waste that we will take the needed measures to curb this menace. Education and sensitization should be intensified to get all stakeholders involved in this quest.

We may not receive financial rewards for this mitigation program as we do for other mechanisms such as in carbon trading for example; but as a country you and I would have contributed our quota to reducing the release of greenhouse gases to make the future change in climate less severe. You and I would have helped in adapting to the change and we would have earned the right to be called our own captain planets!

A. Prempeh


  1. This is exciting. Let me ask some questions for the future:
    1. Waste management, as you describe, may be capital intensive. Who will bear the initial cost of this investment? I ask this in the context that investors need to be assured of political stability/continuity which is still not yet guaranteed in Ghana for a public-private partnership.
    2. In the US, some states make money by importing wastes!!!! Will the NIMBY effect come in if stakeholders negotiate a fair deal for disposing wastes?
    3. Are we not just following the trajectory of the environmental Kurznets curve? That one day when conditions are right, we shall get there?

    1. I agree this much with Kurznets curve in Ghana:
      The nation is slowly undergoing industralization, there is eveidence in Ghana's Shared Growth and Development Agenda than income from industry and services are increasing while that from agriculture is dwindling. Labour that used to work in agriculture are migrating to cities much to the detriment of the agricultural sector because this loss of labour is not compensated by high mechanization but the desire to seek more lucurative sources of income. However, the conditions in Kuznets hypothesis cannot be found in Ghana now, Ghana is becoming more of a service providing country than an industrial one. With the slow paceof industalization I wonder if we will get to that point where the average income increases and is good enough, a point where we are sufficiently industralised allowing benefits to tricle down. A time when all is well.It is good to dream and I sure do hope for that time but for now until Simon Kurznets conditions hold, It id my humble opinion that we become proactive with managing and utilizing our waste while we journey on the sustainable development road. If we don't act soon, we may be spelling out our doom. I believe also in response to the second question that when we are able to treat and put waste to proper use without compromising the health and well being of populations, if we are ble to break the cultural barriers and percepts on waste, our people like the people in the US will go out and beg people for waste and NIMBY will not be a problem (at least the concerns will not be too much). On the initial cost, I do agree with you that government holds a major key - if conditions are made conducive enough even if the government has not the money others will take on the challenge. Afterall, a farmer who has corn does not lack chicks.

    2. Thanks for great education, Afua. Keep it up.

  2. We have initiated this kind of program in California, to some degree of success. We put our waste in different types of bins - plastics, paper, metals, and bio-degradables (mostly food waste). They are then taken to the appropriate facilities to be recycled, buried in land fills (if nothing can be done with them), or turned into "green" manure. This "green manure" is used for agriculture from small-scale to large-scale. One of the problems, of course, is transported all of this fertilizer from a composting site to an agricultural area. I suppose a good approach in Ghana would be to have composting sites at district capitals and then advocate for their use on agricultural lands. This would replenish the top soils and prevent the need for using expensive and harmful chemical fertilizers. NPK inputs do a great job, but they salinize the soil and over time are causing a global nitrogen-fixing problem. Anyway, good article and I hope it leads to positive changes!

    1. I should add that there are great pressures from companies like Yaro that import chemical fertilizers to prevent this kind of approach. The government of Ghana will also have to bear some of the initial cost of getting this kind of program started - it will have to be on the taxpayer's cedi. If the idea is sustainability, it is usually hard to merge with capitalism. As for agricultural->industrial->post industrial economy, there is no indication that this "evolutionary" system is necessary for a country to "develop." The very assumptions that underlie development theory are essentially based on a colonial/cold war model. The problem of composting is difficult because a lot of people need to pitch in to make it successful - if only one farmer tries to compost green waste they will get barely enough compost to cover an 1/8th of an acre.

    2. Douglas, thank you for sharing the experience at the University of California - it could serve as a good case study for people to see the benefits and want to come on board to be part of worthwhile.

      The government will come on board if they stand to benefit or if the populace push them hard enough. Dedication from a few individuals on this matter will make a difference,yes? Looking forward to a time when all the fragmented efforts will come together to make a difference. ;-)


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