Map the System: Plastic Waste in Ghana

Piles of paper and plastic waste stacked up on top of each other in wasteland

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The ‘African Transformers’ team from Ashesi University competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event, reaching the live public final as one of six finalists in the competition. Team members Lloyd Teta, Denver Chikokonya, Munyaradzi Madzoma, Nadine Afkwah Tim and Marshal Ruzvidzo tell us how they mapped the system to understand the root causes of improper waste management in Ghana.

African Transformers is a team of five undergraduate Engineering students at Ashesi University in Ghana. We come from two countries: Zimbabwe and Cameroon. In our freshman year, we connected over a common problem of plastic waste management in our Foundation of Design and Entrepreneurship class. Despite completing the course, we decided to continue the project because we could attest to the fact that improper waste management is not only a problem in Ghana but also in our home countries of Cameroon and Zimbabwe. When we were introduced to Map the Systems, we saw it as an opportunity to learn about the systems thinking approach of problem-solving and to expand our research and work.

To understand the root causes of the problem and its effects beyond what we had seen in our communities, we conducted 22 interviews with students, itinerant plastic collectors, plastic waste buyers, market vendors and representatives from recycling companies. We also carried out secondary research by studying and analyzing research papers, academic literature, national policy publications, news articles, websites, and Governmental reports. Our study of existing solutions made us realize that the problem of improper plastic waste management would be almost impossible to solve if we cannot identify why the problem persists.

Visual map showing the plastic waste problem persisting in Accra. Recycling facilities, population growth, government policies, poverty, people's mindset, capital and plastic production leads to poor plastic waste management.
Visual Here is a map showing why the problem persists in Accra

Gaps in Existing Solutions

  • Waste Collection Companies fail to segregate plastic waste from other solid waste after collection
  • The Government: No proper regulation on the operation of waste management agencies. Poor implementation of plastic management policies.
  • Informal Waste Collectors: Lack of credibility, since high volumes of plastic waste are required as minimum selling quantity.
  • Recycling Companies: Only a small range of plastics is recycled
  • Sensitization by NGOs: These organizations are not consistent with campaigns for plastic waste management due to a lack of funding and sensitization strategies to draw the local people’s attention.

System Map

Based on our research, we came up with a map that shows the different stakeholders within our system and how they interact. Modelling these interactions helped us see that stakeholders such as Informal Waste Collectors are often neglected but they contribute largely to solving the issue of improper plastic waste management. They are said to collect, sort and recycle up to 18% of the total municipal waste generated in small communities within Accra and can reach rural communities that other stakeholders cannot reach. So, we hope to leverage this information to create a sustainable business model that will connect these waste collectors to recycling companies and allow them to deliver waste to the companies at a standard fee.

systems map

Key Insights and lessons learned

  1. We thought that turning to biodegradable plastic was the way forward to manage plastic waste, but we realized that drastic change would take many years before implementation, the reason being that biodegradable plastics are still expensive to produce.
  2. We also realized that sustainable solutions are the ones that come from within society. Solutions should blend with the typical lifestyle of the people.
  3. Solutions that work in other countries may not work in Ghana. So, there is a need for appropriate technologies built for the context of Accra.
  4. We believe that everyone has a part to play in saving our land, sea life and our communities from the effects of plastic waste. The governments alone cannot eliminate plastic waste from the environment, neither can an individual, but with collective action we can reduce improper plastic waste disposal.

Our journey to the top six finalists was interesting due to the transition online. We had to adjust to changes and meeting other teams virtually gave us the chance to connect on various platforms like Slack and share ideas. Moving forward, we will use what we learnt from the Map the System competition to continue our research and publish our findings as an open-source document for other researchers to build on our work.

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