Surveillance Africa

West Africa Is Drowning in Plastic. Who Is Responsible?

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An initiative backed by Coca-Cola, Unilever and Danone to recycle the plastic waste choking Ghana is better at deflecting blame and avoiding regulation than actually recycling.

Agnes Kwansah dragged her sacks across the dusty truck yard, around assorted piles of garbage, to reach the pop-up weighing station. She’d spent the last month collecting discarded bottles around Swedru, a town about 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Accra, the Ghanaian capital. They weren’t hard to find: Plastic pollution is a scourge across Africa and Ghana was once ranked as the world’s seventh messiest nation.

Yet now the country is being hailed as a success story, thanks to a corporate-sponsored cleanup. The event in Swedru was organized by the Ghana Recycling Initiative by Private Enterprises (GRIPE), a coalition of international companies that has won plaudits for its recycling efforts in a nation without much formal waste collection.

GRIPE’s members — including subsidiaries of Coca-Cola, Unilever, Nestle, Danone and Dow Chemical — have the financial clout to make a difference, with combined global sales of their parent companies at more than $340 billion. The companies also happen to be the source of many of the bottles and wrappers that end up in West Africa’s rivers and lagoons, choking wildlife, or burning in illegal dumps, fouling the air.

Despite the dire environmental consequences, the world has never produced more plastic — some 500 million tons annually — and experts predict that to double by 2040. One reason is that plastic is cheap and useful. Another is the success of industry-led campaigns to convince us we can use it sustainably.

Kwansah, 47, watched expectantly as two men hauled her 220 kilograms (485 pounds) of empty soda bottles onto digital scales, then pocketed the handful of banknotes they gave her in return. She said she hoped “those in charge” would do the right thing and reuse the plastic containers she delivered. But those in charge of GRIPE haven’t done much to solve Ghana’s plastic problem, a Bloomberg Green investigation found. Instead, the organization’s members seem intent on shifting responsibility onto someone else: their customers.

The GRIPE and SESA Recycling community plastic buyback event in Swedru.
The GRIPE and SESA Recycling community plastic buyback event in Swedru. Photographer: Nipah Dennis/Bloomberg

Near the Swedru weighing station, a poster showed GRIPE’s cartoon mascot, Auntie Litta, raising a gloved finger in admonishment. Auntie Litta is a typical citizen who cares about the environment, according to GRIPE’s website. She seems to spend much of her time berating Ghanaians for their supposed bad habits. “Don’t be a Borla Bird!” she exhorts, a reference to a local species that’s known for living in garbage.

As Kwansah walked away with her fistful of cash, GRIPE manager Louisa Kabobah gave a speech reinforcing the point. “Plastics itself is not the problem,” she said. The people using it are.

Love it or hate it, plastic is a matter of life and death in Ghana, a nation of 32 million where a quarter of the population lives in poverty and many citizens can’t cook with what comes from their taps without risking sickness. Plastic bottles and sachets are a vital source of clean drinking water, but with little formal waste collection, they are also a dangerous source of pollution. There are discarded containers on every curb in Accra. On the city’s beaches, smoldering piles stain the sand. Slum dwellers use plastic to cover their shacks while children use windblown scraps of it to make kites.

Accra’s drains are so choked with trash, especially plastic bottles, that it floods every rainy season. In 2015, the flooding was so bad that more than 200 people died in the capital, most of them killed when a fire broke out at a gas station where they were sheltering. (A government report identified poor drainage and floating waste as factors contributing to the severity of the disaster). Afterwards, there were calls to ban certain types of plastic.

Accra’s drains are so choked with trash, especially plastic bottles, that it floods every rainy season.
Accra’s drains are so choked with trash, especially plastic bottles, that it floods every rainy season. Photographer: Nipah Dennis/Bloomberg

The region’s biggest consumer companies held meetings through the Association of Ghana Industries, a leading trade organization, to come up with their own solutions. What emerged was GRIPE, which was unveiled in 2017 with a mission to “implement recycling and second-life solutions that reduce the impacts of post-consumer plastic waste on the environment.”

Among GRIPE’s earliest activities were exploring whether used plastic could be turned into construction material — school toilets in one instance — and holding pop-up buyback events where Ghanaians could sell their waste to specialist recyclers. The original contract between GRIPE’s members, dated November 2017, recognized the “immense” contribution that the private sector could make to waste collection in Ghana.  It also extolled the unmatched benefits of plastic packaging: “light, easily shaped, strong … affordable.”

Cordie Aziz, an American émigré and former US congressional staffer who moved to Ghana to start a nonprofit, says she had a role in the creation of GRIPE, flagging the idea with her contacts at Danone, Coca-Cola’s Voltic unit and Dow. “We started meeting and putting together how things could potentially look,” she said.

One inspiration, according to Aziz, was Keep America Beautiful, the anti-litter organization behind the popular “Crying Indian” public-service ad that ran in the US from 1971 through the early 1980s, in which an indigenous man weeps over the sight of discarded trash. Keep America Beautiful’s founders — leading beverage and packaging companies — also fought against proposed legislation that would require drink containers to be reusable, prompting criticism of the group from environmentalists. Even the “Indian” in the ads was fake, played by an actor who publicly identified as Native American but was in fact Italian-American. Nonetheless, Aziz recognized the power of the message.

GRIPE won an important endorsement early on. Two of its members, Diageo and Danone, appealed to contacts in the British government for support, according to e-mails released following a Freedom of Information request. Diageo’s executive said Ghana was “a template for further collaboration on plastics in key Africa markets,” while a Danone representative sought to attract interest from the department that manages Britain’s foreign aid budget.

The lobbying paid off. Penny Mordaunt, then British secretary of state of international development, namechecked GRIPE and its parent entity, the Association of Ghana Industries, during a Westminster event in March 2019. “This is a win-win, because it is helping the environment but it’s also creating new jobs,” she told an audience of grandees including Sir David Attenborough, the television presenter and naturalist. British foreign aid officials would later collaborate with GRIPE to gather data on recycling and waste volumes in Ghana, though the UK government didn’t provide any funding.

GRIPE soon unveiled a glossy marketing campaign, including animated films starring Auntie Litta, and a Twitter account. At a school event in 2018, local actors performed a comedy drama about sanitation management.

Yet the amount of actual recycling happening in Ghana remained stubbornly low. Although reliable data is scant, less than 0.1% of plastic is recycled in Ghana, according to a 2020 report by the European Commission. The paper’s authors noted that GRIPE had an “active social media presence” but that “little high-impact results have been achieved so far.” GRIPE’s activities were coordinated by a single full-time employee working from the offices of the Association of Ghana Industries.

Aziz says her experiences with GRIPE left her disillusioned about its commitment to real change. Her organization, Environment360, no longer works much with the private sector, she says, because of her concerns about greenwashing: the label given to corporate activity that appears to be environmentally friendly, but in practice has minimal or negative impact.

From the start, one of GRIPE’s core objectives was to alleviate poverty by securing an income for the informal workers, like Agnes Kwansah in Swedru, who collect more than half of Ghana’s trash. Many waste pickers are elderly women, spending eight hours or more each day doing the dirty and exhausting work of scavenging for plastic. At urban landfill sites, children sift through piles of trash for scraps to sell. Yet critics say GRIPE has been just as ineffective in the fight again poverty as it has in boosting the recycling market.

One head of municipal waste management in the Accra region said the “very meager” sums paid to trash collectors offered them little encouragement. Cordie Aziz goes further, arguing that any service relying on society’s poorest people without rewarding them properly is exploitative. A picker might toil for an entire month for 300 Ghanaian cedis, roughly $40, she said. “How can you live off that?”

Auntie Litta, though, has a different message. One GRIPE advert promises “pleeeeenty money” for those collecting bottles; another announcement refers to discarded plastic as “treasure.” GRIPE itself, though, isn’t a buyer. The cash for litter pickers comes from its recycling partners.

To examine GRIPE’s impact, Bloomberg Green reporters spent several months investigating its flagship programs. The first challenge was locating them. In 2020, GRIPE cut the ribbon on a “permanent buyback centre” in Jamestown, Accra, where residents could bring plastic, as well as paper, cans and glass, to be sold for recycling. But on a recent visit to Jamestown, no one seemed to have heard of it. Finally, a man with long dreadlocks said he knew the location, and walked reporters through beachside slums, past a goat market and open shacks that showed little sign of sharing in the profits of a circular economy. Graying shreds of plastic blew across the beach and piles of it burned on the sand, giving off a sour chemical smell. The man stopped at a small shed with a faded GRIPE logo. It had been abandoned for months.

The slum’s inhabitants still collect plastic bottles, which they sell to Chinese traders who arrive periodically in trucks. When rainfall is heavy, they call it plastic season because of all the waste that washes out onto the beach. Evidence could be seen in a nearby lagoon, which was teeming with what looked like colorful jellyfish but were in fact plastic bags, wrappers and pouches.

One of the most visible GRIPE initiatives installed blue recycling containers at Total gas stations around Accra, allowing residents to drop off bottles more conveniently. The clear plastic used in soda bottles, known as PET, is relatively simple to recycle and fetches high prices in Europe. In December, Bloomberg Green placed electronic trackers in two bottles and deposited them in the GRIPE drop-off bins. Neither moved for weeks. In late January one began to travel by road, then disappeared. The other stayed put. In March, reporters visited the gas station and found the recycling point full to overflowing, blocked off by oil drums. The bottle containing the tracker was still inside. It had never been emptied.

Reached by phone, Prince Agbata, an executive at the recycling firm that was supposed to manage the bins, said there had been “funding challenges.” GRIPE hadn’t offered any financial incentive for collecting the bottles, he said. The funding was provided by Total, Coca-Cola’s Voltic unit and by his own company, and it had clearly run low. In any case, Agbata explained, there wasn’t a single facility in Ghana capable of recycling PET into new bottles, so it’s hard to sell locally. Most of what he gets he exports to Europe. The rest is “downcycled,” turned into something that isn’t a bottle. (In July, plastic packaging maker Mohinani Group announced plans to build Ghana’s first PET recycling plant, due for completion at the end of 2023.)

Sending bottles from Ghana to Europe for recycling is far from ideal, as even Big Plastic insiders acknowledge, since it costs time and money and leaves a larger carbon footprint. “Exportation of plastic and packaging waste out of Africa is not sustainable,” said Clement Ugorji, a Coca-Cola vice president for public affairs, in a 2020 interview with Forbes. “We need the domestic capacity for collection and recycling and reuse on the continent.” But plastic recycling facilities aren’t cheap, requiring an upfront investment that GRIPE’s members and partners have so far proved unwilling to make.

Jeffrey Provencal, a former BlackRock executive, set up his Ghanaian company rePATRN Ltd. in 2015 to do just that. Building a bottle-to-bottle plant costs millions of dollars, so he says he started talks with local representatives of Coca-Cola, which has publicly committed itself to sustainability under the slogan: “A world without waste.” Provencal says Coca-Cola told him, as a starting point, that recycled plastic would have to be cheaper than virgin plastic, an impossible demand given the cost of collection and processing.

A few months later, a leaked internal Coca-Cola document from its public affairs team in Europe gave an insight into the company’s lobbying priorities. Inside a category of response labeled “fight back,” Coca-Cola included any state-backed plans to increase collection or recycling targets. New taxes and refillable container rules were also singled out for opposition by Coca-Cola’s employees.

“We are promoting a more circular economy in Ghana,” said Scott Leith, a Coca-Cola spokesman. (The idea of a “circular economy” is to reuse materials over and over again, minimizing resource extraction and waste.) Establishing a bottle recycling plant in the country by 2025 is a company priority and Coca-Cola has signed an agreement with an investor for that purpose, Leith added. “In the meantime, our priority is to strengthen the necessary collection systems required to make such an installation viable.”

What little recycling does take place in Ghana is mostly bottle-to-fiber — spinning used plastic into strands for clothing or wigs. This process is called downcycling because it can only happen once; the garments or hair products are still likely to end up in a landfill eventually and the recycling loop has been broken. Chinese traders dominate the bottle-to-fiber market in Ghana, although there is little oversight of what happens inside their facilities, clustered around the biggest ports. Government inspectors have found that some lacked adequate machinery and were, in fact, importing plastic waste into Ghana, according to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. (Richer countries often export waste to poorer countries with laxer regulations — one reason Ghana has become a notorious dumping ground for hazardous electronic waste, such as discarded computers).

Provencal said he still hopes to get investment for a bottle-to-bottle recycling plant. In the meantime, rePATRN exports the soda bottles it collects to buyers in Germany, Portugal and Belgium, even as far as Australia. Some of the bottles from the GRIPE buyback event in Swedru ended up in rePATRN’s hands and were sent to a recycling plant in Spain. Even so, Provencal seemed unimpressed with GRIPE’s achievements. It is “an image campaign for all companies involved,” Provencal said. Dow, Danone, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Diageo and Unilever have all used GRIPE to bolster their green credentials in annual reports for shareholders, media interviews and promotional material.

“There is no accountability,” said Provencal. “You can put some money in and say you are part of the game.”

Plastic bottles and sachets are a vital source of clean drinking water, but with little formal waste collection, they are also a dangerous source of pollution.
Plastic bottles and sachets are a vital source of clean drinking water, but with little formal waste collection, they are also a dangerous source of pollution. Photographer: Nipah Dennis/Bloomberg

The executives who run GRIPE were surprisingly open about its commercial objectives when interviewed at the Association of Ghana Industries headquarters in Accra. “People are quick to point at plastics,” said John Defor, an AGI policy research officer. He described what happened in the aftermath of the lethal 2015 floods and the pressure for bans. The companies that eventually became GRIPE’s founder members gathered at a beachside hotel, amid palm trees and fountains, to coordinate a response. Afterwards, they met with the ministry for the environment to “put across the strong position that no, banning plastics would not be the way to go,” Defor said. The politicians “saw the need to give industry the chance to prepare solutions,” according to Defor.

There are limited restrictions on certain grades of plastic in Ghana but GRIPE’s lobbying has largely succeeded. During a March event at a recycling depot, Ghana’s minister for the environment, science, technology and innovation, Kwaku Afriyie, praised the private sector’s efforts. “This whole recycling thing is actually the initiative of private industry and government does not intend to set up parallel systems to compete with them,” he said. Afriyie has spoken out against bans and in favor of the circular economy, saying that plastic could be reused many times if disposed of properly.

It might seem reasonable for Ghana, where the gross domestic product is less than Nestle’s annual sales, to let multinational companies take the lead on cleaning up plastic pollution. But the funding the companies have devoted to the initiative makes any real progress all but impossible. The 2017 contract that created GRIPE, obtained through a UK Freedom of Information request, set the financial contribution of each member at just 45,000 Ghanaian Cedis, or about $5,800, each year. (Nestle would pay even less, for reasons that weren’t disclosed in the paperwork: about $1,850). To put those figures in context, GRIPE costs Unilever less than 0.0001% of its annual marketing budget of $7.5 billion.

“We are fully committed to helping build a circular economy and reducing plastic waste in Ghana; to do that we need industry collaboration through associations like GRIPE and a well-designed regulatory framework,” Unilever said in a statement. A Nestle spokeswoman said the company’s collaboration with GRIPE complemented its other activities in Ghana, including collecting 5,000 tons of plastic for recycling since 2019.

Dow said in a statement it was committed to sustainability and reducing plastic waste around the world. “GRIPE continues to make progress, is serving as a model for new partnership approaches, and is catalyzing additional action.”

Diageo said it was committed to making all its packaging recyclable by 2025 and that GRIPE was just one of its initiatives in Ghana, where the company has also funded 10 new plastic bottle banks. Danone didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Without the infrastructure required to process waste, plastic continues to pour into Ghana’s rivers and oceans. And sales of plastic are increasing, as consumers in one of the region’s fastest-growing economies seek out the comparative luxury of bottled drinks.

Auntie Litta’s Twitter campaign continues. Last Valentine’s Day, she suggested that Ghanaians weren’t showing enough love to the environment: “Mother Earth, will you be our Valentine?”

The plastic lobby is large and formidable — a Frankenstein’s monster of numerous influential industries. Big Plastic encompasses Big Oil (plastic is made from fossil fuels), Big Soda, Big Chemical, Big Grocer, and even Big Tobacco (cigarette butts contain plastic). Given the diversity of companies involved, its messaging has been remarkably consistent wherever it is deployed. Recycling works and is environmentally friendly (the reality is messier); sustainability measures should be voluntary; banning plastic is unworkable — all arguable, if self-serving, points of view.

GRIPE clones have influenced government policy in other parts of the world. The Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Materials Sustainability, or PARMS, has pushed for more focus on waste collection as opposed to a statutory prohibition on single-use plastic sachets. Unilever, one of its members, also lobbied an influential Filipino senator to ensure that new legislation did not include bans, Reuters reported. Coca-Cola and Nestle are PARMS members.

Bottled water and drinks for sale in Accra in July.
Bottled water and drinks for sale in Accra in July. Photographer: Nipah Dennis/Bloomberg
Plastic waste purchased by the Ghana Recycling Initiative by Private Enterprises (GRIPE) in Agona Swedru, Central Region of Ghana, on March 19, 2022.
Plastic waste purchased by recyclers at a GRIPE event in Swedru in March. Photographer: Nipah Dennis/Bloomberg

Blaming consumers for plastic mess is a decades-old trick, according to George Harding-Rolls, a campaign manager at Changing Markets, an environmental NGO that focuses on corporate accountability. “It’s a distraction tactic that’s being exported into different contexts,” he said. The Clean Europe Network — motto: “together we can make a difference” — was created by Pack2Go, a trade organization for the packaging sector (Clean Europe has denied accusations that it is an industry front). The Alliance to End Plastic Waste — which represents chemical and plastic products companies including ExxonMobil, Shell, Dow, PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble — runs projects to “improve waste management literacy.” Such organizations deny the scale of the crisis, and what’s really required to fix it, according to Harding-Rolls. “If you own up to it being a systemic issue, you need systemic solutions.”

Still, GRIPE’s leaders deny they are trying to shift the blame. “If we as individuals take responsibility for our actions in managing plastics, we will go a long way to solve the menace, rather than hating on the people who are trying give me convenient and enjoyable water,” said Theophilus Arthur-Mensah, an AGI official.

In response to questions about the abandoned buyback center in Jamestown and the unemptied Total recycling bins, GRIPE representatives said there were contractual or logistical problems, and that both projects were ongoing. Asked about the concrete progress, or lack of it, made by GRIPE, its president Basil Ampofo (who is employed as a regulatory affairs manager at Unilever) thought for a moment before answering. “The very fact that plastics are not banned in Ghana, I think that’s one of our greatest achievements.”

Ampofo also pointed out that the Ghanaian government levies a 10% tax on plastic imports specifically to help fund improvements to waste collection and recycling. GRIPE’s leaders say they don’t know where the proceeds have gone, and argue the money should have been used to do the kind of work that GRIPE members are trying to undertake voluntarily. “If the levy was judiciously used, there would be no GRIPE,” Ampofo said. “We wouldn’t exist.”

Kwabena Biritwum, an official with Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency, has his own perspective on the plastic problem, which he’s seen up close in massive illegal dump sites and overflowing municipal facilities. Over lunch in a Chinese restaurant near Ghana’s biggest port, the discussion turned to the smouldering piles of trash on the beach at Jamestown. “You think that was bad?” he said. “I can show you something bigger than this building.”

Biritwum said he didn’t know much about GRIPE or its work, but that companies should be judged on what they do, not what they say. And what do they do? “Not a lot,” he replied.

For Biritwum, littering was a result of poverty and lack of proper housing, not slovenly behavior. Ghana was changing, he went on, because of habits imported from Europe and the United States, where GRIPE’s members grew into multinational corporations able to spread the gospel of consumer culture around the world. “We are becoming more throwaway, more takeaway,” he said. “We are becoming more like you.”

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