Unsung & undervalued: How a plastic waste collector in Ghana risks his life to defend our ecosystem

In a period where many cities and towns around the world are drowning in plastic waste, certain unsung men and women have emerged to not only rid our water bodies of plastic waste but also, to help prevent an irreparable damage to marine life, our ecosystem and future generations. These unsung individuals are ‘Plastic Waste Collectors.’

Morris Johnson is one of the numerous plastic waste collectors at Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra. Like all other waste collectors, Morris plays a vital role in the waste management and the recycling industry. However, despite their important contribution to the plastic supply chain, waste collectors are constantly stigmatised and undervalued.

Morris earns a living by collecting plastic bottles from the Korle Lagoon at Agbogbloshie. A significant amount of trash (plastic waste) that ends up in the Korle Lagoon originates from the major towns in Accra through the Odaw River. The Korle Lagoon collects all those urban junks and empties them into the Gulf of Guinea, northeast of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Usually after it rains, the water carries all the plastics bottles and other trash from all over the city and empties them here, into the Korle Lagoon. When that happens, you’ll see the bottles floating on the surface so I just pick the neat ones, gather them and sell them to get my daily bread. Sometimes when the bottles are too far to reach, I use a stick to pull them close to me,” Morris said as he recounted his daily experiences on the job.

Plastic waste collectors work under terrible conditions. They risk their lives by diving into the heavily polluted Korle Lagoon to retrieve plastic bottles. “My work is very difficult but I don’t have a choice… Sometimes if I’m not careful the water can take me away… We find dead bodies in the water all the time. There was a guy who drowned during the coronavirus lockdown period. He thought he was standing on a firm ground not knowing it was a pile of trash. So, he just sank into the water and nobody has seen him since then.” Morris narrated.

The bottles these collectors pick up are sold to recycling companies, which are then taken through a rigorous process of recycling to be used again and again for new products. However, these collectors are given meager amounts as payments for their hard work. “I pick the bottles with my hand… I pack them into mosquito nets and sell them… For each mosquito net I sell, they give me GH₵30 [an equivalent of $5].”

In addition to their unfair wages, plastic waste collectors are constantly stigmatised and undervalued. Just like frontline health workers fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic, plastic collectors are frontline workers fighting ocean pollution. They are not recognized for the important role they play in defending our ecosystem.

“Some people don’t even come close to us because of the work we do. They think they’re better than us simply because we collect plastics from dirty water. Others don’t even respect us,” a partner of Morris said.

Researchers have estimated that about 8 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s ocean every year. The World Economic Forum equates this to emptying the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. And by 2050, this is estimated to increase to four garbage trucks every minute.

A 2016 research by Dyck I. suggests that plastic waste accounts for 63% of marine debris in the Gulf of Guinea. This is a reminder of what is at stake if there is not a concerted effort to deal with plastic pollution around the world.

Read Also: Catching Plastics: How fishers in Ghana are battling ocean pollution for survival

The work of plastic waste collectors like Morris Johnson provides an important solution to plastic pollution and presents a lucrative venture for employment. Their effort must be recognized, encouraged and celebrated.

This report was produced with support from Sustainable Ocean Alliance Ocean Solutions Micro-Grant.

Report by Claudia Adusei, | SOA Ghana Fellow

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