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.
- 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?