The 3 R’s

What do the 3 R’s look like in Ghana?

The 3 R’s are familiar to kids all over Canada. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, the three ethos of conservation. I see them in Ghana, as well.

Reuse: This happens, by necessity. Wastage costs money. Jobs are scarce and competition is fierce, especially for those without a lot of education. This means there’s a huge supply of unskilled labor, and this drives down the costs of people’s time.

When suddenly there’s a lot of free time floating around, and people are looking for something, anything, to fill their days that might make them a buck, people start finding value in all sorts of unusual places. One way is in finding ways to keep things going – to reuse, to reuse, to reuse.

For example:

  • I’ve bought two pairs of shoes since I’ve arrived. The first was a cheap pair of soccer shoes. They tore apart after about three times playing in them. I got them sewed by a guy on my street for under a buck. They’ve been going strong, so far. The other was a pair of leather sandals. I’ve had to get them repaired twice so far – about two bucks in total.
  • Probably 70% of cars would never be considered road-worthy anywhere in Canada. Yet, the run and run and run. And when they stop running, they get repaired, however necessary, however works. I was recently in a taxi in Accra. The driver kept honking his horn (as people are apt to do here) by pulling on the wind-shield wiper lever – someone had rewired the windshield detergent spray to the horn. My friend was telling me about a truck that some of his colleagues bought. The gas tank was an open milk jug rigged up to the fuel line, sitting right beside the shifter.

Reduce: Once people have their hands on some small money, they’re looking for ways to stretch it as far as possible. The expenditures that people make is even more of an indication of what they value than in Western, “market-based” societies, because the relative value of each dollar is so high. People will walk to town, rather than take a taxi. Meat becomes more of a luxury, and not a day to day thing. Disposable income obviously drops. People are still happy, still spending money on things that really matter to them – the extravagant funerals are a great indication of this – but things that don’t matter so much get pushed to the back burner indefinitely.

Recycle: Starting fresh costs a lot more money than revamping the old. The return rate on bottles must be close to 100% – vendors get charged for each bottle they fail to return to their supplier, and so they demand that consumers drink the product on site, and return the bottle immediately afterwards. Recycling, though, is really not something that is a high-priority. If it can’t be reduced or reused, then it’s no longer valuable, and any “environmental implications” are just not on the agenda. Things that are designed to be disposable – plastic bags, water sachets – build up everywhere. Oil is drained directly into storm drains.

I’m trying to juggle how, in the West, with all our wealth, we struggle to maintain a focus on these three ethos of conservation, and the way we motivate people towards these is a drive towards the “greater good” – saving the planet. In Ghana, the focus is on getting by day to day, and usually, that means a strict adherence to the first two R’s – reducing and reusing – simply because to do otherwise just doesn’t make sense in people’s lives. Wastage is only possible with excess. I’ve been wondering (since long before I got to Ghana, but don’t feel much closer to an answer) – does development by definition (in providing people with opportunity and choices) inherently mean environmental damage will increase?

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6 Responses to The 3 R’s

  1. franckvachon says:

    Yeah, very interesting reflection. Funny that you end up with that question (about the correlation between development and environmental degradation). I had the question, still not much of an answer, just a couple theories.

    In a way, I’m feeling like perhaps they are going to leap-frog us in this respect, a little the way they did with fixed lines vs cell phones. What I mean by this is that yeah, you can talk to a farmer about recycling and the environment and stuff, but he’s still going to throw away is plastic bags wherever, even as you speak. But that same farmer is very likely to respond to anything you’ll say about climat change and show awareness of the issue, in a way that is perhaps even… somewhat better or greater than some people I know in Canada, who just won’t really care all that much. I am under no illusions that this was partly brought on by donors projects, because environment is fashionnable right now and climate change is a buzz word in this sphere, too. But so what? When the time comes, when opportunities open up and people get to make choice, perhaps having this consciousnss about climate change and the need to do something about it will make it easier for them to make real progress on theses issues than it was for use in Canada and the West.

    That counts as good development work, doesn’t it?


    And what you’re saying about necessity applies to fuel, too. If oil keeps rising over the next decade or so, people here will have to make choices and adapt. Either government will have to subsidize fuel (but how much can they really afford it?), or alternatives will be sought. Of course, a problem is that perhaps it will be biofuel (which won’t do much about greehouse gazes), but perhaps other options will become economically viable, especially if research in the West finally gets going. If we do the investment in research, then developping countries can jump it too, at a much lower cost. It has been proven with cell phones, is being repeat with computer and internet, might very well if the power revolution comes (from carbon-based to whatever else comes).

    I can’t help but to feel this view is a little optimistic. But whatever, I feel optimistic tonight.

  2. Belinda says:

    The environmental impact of development has always been something that has bothered me. But before I go into that, I have some thoughts on this whole ethos of conservation.

    I think we have it all wrong in Western society, thinking that we are so great at adapting the 3Rs (or now 5Rs – Reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, residuals). The Rs are in order from the ideal action (reduce) to the last resort (residuals – i.e. landfill). Because the West has such a high consumerist society, and lots of disposable income to waste compared to the rest of the world, we skip over reducing and reusing most of the time because we want more stuff (e.g. I gotta get that new iPad) or it’s just not convenient (e.g. Why should I use a mug that I need to wash, when I can just get a paper cup and throw it out). We focus way too much managing waste (recycling, recovering energy from incineration, where to truck stuff when Cache Creek fills up) which takes an insane amount of energy and resources, and not enough on preventing things from going to waste in the first place. Sure, we don’t see much of our waste piling up all over the place. But that’s related to us being really good at hiding it (e.g. in a landfill, shipping E-waste to China), not because we are doing a very good job of taking care of the earth. If we let all our plastic bags and packaging go loose, we’ll be wading knee deep in coffee cups. Regardless of the focus on “saving the world” that’s come up more in recent times, people in the West still have ecological footprints that are orders of magnitude greater than those living in developing countries.

    Digressions aside, my main point is that I think the Ghanaians have it right when it comes to environmental stewardship, and we need to learn from them. Though their motivations are much different, by mainly reducing and reusing, it doesn’t matter as much if the other Rs down the chain are low priority.

    Now back to the environmental implications of development. Because so much development is obviously triggered from the West, if we define development as having opportunity and choices through having more stuff to throw away, then yes, more development = more environmental degradation. That’s what development seems to look like more or less right now. There’s still way too much focus on getting people “stuff” like those silly give shirts to African children campaigns. What I believe is that we need to completely rethink development as how to improve access to opportunity and choices while maintaining the bottom line of not compromising environmental stewardship. We need to build opportunity and choices not around material needs, but rather experiences, knowledge, emotions, interactions, and all these other less tangible metrics.

  3. Mike says:

    Really interesting post. I laughed so hard at the windshield wiper horn haha. The point about what people spend their money on with limited dispensable income, and it being a way to see what people really Value is an interesting one. I think it’s interesting how this can potentially clash with the cultural/social expectations around funerals, weddings and lending money to extended family networks – I was chatting with Mike Field about this in Accra, the idea that some of these cultural norms make it difficult for people to invest in a business or a farm to really change their wealth situation.

  4. Brian says:

    Interesting post Dan, I’m too lazy right now to contribute further to the discussion (I’ll blame it on the heat, but Franck might trump me from Burkina). I’ve also thought about this topic and I’m glad you’re throwing it out there for discussion, and some great discussion and comments followed!

    Let me just address one of Franck’s points: currently the Ghanaian governmet subsidizes fuel but for how long will they be able to maintain this bubble? What I’m most concerned about in this regard is the farmer dependence on (petro) chemical fertilizers. When oil prices start to spike and the government is no longer able to subsidize fertilizer or petroleum will farmers be ready and have the knowledge and skills on composting, no-till, organic fertilizer, and so on?

  5. Pingback: Development Digest – 18/03/11 « What am I doing here?

  6. obibinibruni says:

    I have the exact same concern about the contradictions between development and environmental stewardship. With this lingering colonial rhetoric pertaining to development, Ghanaians have ingrained these terribly destructive European ideals, something that is most prevalent among the parts of the population under 40 and the diaspora. That said, to pull away from the relationships that continue to this day, we cannot stop those populations from doing exactly what our governments have been pushing for for centuries, even if it be by their own volition at this time – it can only be, because this accompanies economic growth, something Western governments did not intend. The best we can do is to work in solidarity with these nations at varying levels to help them get the lifestyles that are best for them – stepping away from the decision-making process, rather than enforcing our own ideas – but also ensure knowledge is available to take the best paths possible.

    Whether that is possible in a day and age where [predominantly white] teenagers are going abroad to provide highly unskilled labour to populations who have the skills and knowledge necessary to do far better work is something to consider.

    As it has been a number of years, have you come up with an answer to your question?

    Also, I want to add that when I first went to Ghana in 2009, I learned of Trashy Bags. They recycle various forms of trash, most notably pure water and FanIce sachets, into different styles of bags (hence the name). You should check out their site, they will soon have an online store! (And no, I am not affiliated with them. In fact, I have yet to buy from them …not having yet had the need)

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