ACCRA, Ghana — Quenching your thirst costs a few cents in Ghana’s capital city, where street vendors sell purified water in clear plastic bags.
But environmental and public health costs are much higher. Empty sachets are tossed to the ground because there’s no comprehensive recycling program and few trash cans. The bags clog storm drains, which leads to flooding and increased risk of diseases like malaria.
One solution is to turn the trash into totes — and purses, and sports bags. That’s the idea behind Trashy Bags, an NGO that retrieves water and ice cream sachets from the streets, scrubs them clean and sews them into usable items.
“For most people who come as a tourist, the amount of waste on the street here, we’re just not used to it, so it’s shocking,” said Carma Lovely, a Colorado native living in Accra. “I don’t think that in this culture they know the long-term effect of it.”
British-born Stuart Gold was working on a global warming project when he and his former business partner, a Ghanaian, came up with the idea. It’s been a hit, especially with environmentally conscious expatriates. Trashy Bags has removed more than 10 million sachets from the streets in its more than two years of operation.
“What we collect now is minimal compared to what needs to be picked up,” Gold said. “We get many, many thousands of sachets a month. It’s a small, small dent in the problem.”
Indeed, there’s no shortage. Water sachets are available on every corner, and hawkers weave through traffic to deliver them to motorists. Accra officials estimate the sachets compose 85 percent of all waste generated by the city’s 3 million residents. Less than 5 percent is recycled.
Also popular are Fan Milk products, which include ice cream, frozen yogurt and citrus drinks. Fan Milk’s colorful packaging injects some flair into the Trashy Bags products.
In his second-floor showroom above the washing and sewing stations, Gold points to the bag he hopes will fuel a major expansion. It’s called the “Smart Bag,” a fold-up grocery bag sewn from the plastic of 50 sachets. It sells locally for about $12. He hopes to export them to the United States and distribute them through upscale chains like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.
“That’s the link. We have to create that market. That would really make a big impact on the environment here, because if we could ship a million of those a year, say, then that means we get 50 million of the sachets off the streets every year,” he said.
There are 60 employees, excluding the dozens of people who are paid small fees for collecting the bags. If the Smart Bag plan succeeds, Gold says he’ll expand production by enlisting people outside Accra to collect, clean and sew the bags in their villages.
“We can’t do it cheaply enough in Accra. Our overhead is too high,” said Gold, who declined to discuss sales figures. “It’s hard to get to the point where we’re covering our costs. We’re not even breaking even.”
Educating the public about the dangers of plastic waste is another goal. Trashy Bags worked with the French Embassy in Accra two years ago to persuade shoppers at six supermarkets to use less plastic. More recently, they’ve asked the supermarkets to charge a small fee for each plastic bag. Under the plan, the fees would go into a nongovernmental fund allocating grants for environmental projects. They’re awaiting an answer from the city’s biggest supermarket.
Production manager Elvis Aboluah said his fellow Ghanaians are still learning that plastic waste is harmful to the environment.
“We need to educate people to let them understand that, look, the plastic that you have thrown away 50 or 60 years ago is hidden somewhere and causing destruction,” he said. “It’s a major, major problem. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade like leaves and other things.”
African governments have struggled with the plastic waste problem — more focused on plastic bags than sachets. Eritrea, Rwanda and Tanzania have banned plastic bags while South Africa, Uganda and Kenya have set restrictions on their production and use.
Last year, Ghana's Vice President John Dramani Mahama said at an environmental conference that the administration would support a ban on plastic bags if the problem were not solved. As for sachets, Ghana plans to impose a 20 percent tax on sales of water in plastic bottles and sachets, to raise money for cleanup efforts.
Lovely, the American, has visited the showroom many times and now brings friends. In the past she has bought children’s backpacks as well as computer bags for friends.
“That was just for fun,” she said. “I don’t know that you’d walk into Price Waterhouse with one ... but you should.”