Water and Waste

Journey through Ghana’s Waste Maze: Stories from the Field

Article written by Moses Asamoah

  1. Have you ever wondered how much waste our cities generate and what impact it has on the environment?
  2. Have you thought about the stories hidden behind the piles and scattered waste on the streets of urban areas?
  3. Are you curious about a simple plastic package’s journey and its role in our environmental narrative?
  4. Do you have any idea of the economic value that lies in waste?

Hello, fellow adventurers!

Today, I’m excited to take you on a thrilling rollercoaster ride through my recent field experiences in selected vibrant and bustling slum areas of Accra, the capital of Ghana. As part of the Water and Waste project, I had the incredible opportunity to immerse myself in the dynamic world of data collection, uncovering the hidden stories and challenges surrounding water and waste management in these communities. So, buckle up and step into the shoes of a field data collector as I unravel the highs, lows, and valuable lessons from my escapades! And you’ll find that the journey is far from mundane. 

The staggering surge in waste production across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has sparked concerns about the sustainability of our environmental future. According to recent data, the annual waste volume in the region escalated from 81 million tonnes to 174 million tonnes between 2012 and 2016, with projections pointing to a jaw-dropping 269 million tonnes by 2030. To comprehend the gravity of this issue, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funded a partnership of the University of Southampton, University of Ghana, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology, and VIRED for an ambitious water and waste project. Our mission? To delve deep into the heart of off-grid urban areas in Ghana, unearthing the intricate nuances of unmanaged waste.

Field Experience Chronicles

Training Sessions and Pretesting Tools:

A snapshot of us eagerly engrossed in our pre-field training.

Our journey began with intensive training sessions. We knew thorough preparation was crucial to success, so we rigorously pretested our data collection tools. These early stages were the foundation of our work. During these sessions, we learned the importance of careful planning, attention to detail, and teamwork. The time spent in these sessions wasn’t always smooth sailing, but ensuring our data collection methods were reliable was essential.

A group of enthusiastic researchers huddled together, discussing tools and methodologies.

Transect Walks: Uncovering the Shocking Truth

Capturing scattered waste along the transect walk path.

Transect walks became our daily ritual, leading us through the maze of narrow alleyways and bustling streets of slum areas. Armed with our tools and enthusiasm, the scorching sun and cloudburst bore down on us as we ventured into the unknown. The ups included the sense of purpose and the satisfaction of contributing to a vital cause. However, the downs were equally real. Witnessing the massive volume of scattered, piled, and burned waste was disheartening. It made us painfully aware of the enormous challenges that communities, especially slums, face in managing their waste. As we walked, we couldn’t help but reflect on the disparities in living conditions, a powerful lesson in itself. The raw intensity of the situation struck a chord within us, driving us to strive harder in our pursuit of solutions.

Google Street View Maps: A Handy Companion

In our quest for precision, we turned to technology. Google Street View maps were invaluable for topping up our transect walks. The ability to cross-reference panoramic street images with our observations enhanced accuracy and opened our eyes to the possibilities of combining old-school fieldwork with cutting-edge technology. It provided a much-needed bird’s eye view, offering valuable insights and a broader terrain perspective.

Market Survey: Unwrapping the Plastic Packaging Conundrum

Amid our data collection endeavours, we delved into some bustling local markets of Accra slums to conduct a comprehensive survey on plastic packaging and the intricate art of commodity wrapping. Engaging with local vendors and observing their resourceful and varied packaging practices and consumer demand shed light on these communities’ pervasive plastic waste dilemma. This was a stark reminder of the trade-off between packaging food to keep it contamination-free but reducing plastic waste. We understood the importance of plastic packaging alternatives and consumer education.

Identifying Plastic Resin Types – a hands-on experience

Researchers engaging in meticulous plastic resin identification processes.

There are many different types of plastic polymer or resin that behave differently in the environment. Without labelling on packaging or expensive laboratory facilities, it can be hard to know which resin is which. Using packaging samples from our market survey, we tried out an experimental low-cost plastic resin identification method, which involved examining and categorizing plastic according to features, characteristics, properties, and resin codes. Every plastic bore its tale, and it was our duty to decipher its characteristics within the context of waste management and environmental sustainability. However, this process wasn’t without its challenges. Sometimes, plastics were tricky to classify while exhibiting distinct features. Lessons learned? Patience and attention to detail were essential for accurate identification.

Plastic Samples

Meeting the Waste Collectors: The Unsung Heroes

Our journey introduced us to the unsung heroes of waste management: the waste collectors. We conducted focus group discussions and surveys at their workstations. It was a humbling experience, witnessing their relentless efforts to navigate the maze of waste, salvaging what could be repurposed and recycled. Their resilience in the face of adversity became a beacon of hope, instilling within us a renewed sense of purpose and dedication to our cause. However, we also faced some challenges. Some waste collectors were hesitant to participate until we answered their questions about our study. It taught us that building trust was key to collecting accurate data and understanding their perspectives. Their stories were eye-opening and reminded us of the importance of their often-under-valued role in our communities.

A focus group Discussion session with the waste collectors.

Nappy Use Survey: A Peek into Motherhood

We realised from our transect surveys and waste collector interviews that disposable diapers (nappies) were becoming a waste issue. Our survey with mothers of children under 36 months offered an intimate glimpse into their daily lives. We discovered the convenience of disposable diapers but also recognized their environmental impact. It opened our eyes to families’ challenges in balancing convenience and environmental impact. It highlighted the urgent need for sustainable alternatives and heightened our commitment to advocating for eco-friendly solutions that cater to the needs of both parents and the planet. The reflections of mothers on their diaper choices were illuminating. Our journey with them reminded us of the importance of engaging communities in sustainable practices.

The Eye-Opening Visit to a Plastic Recycling Plant

Plastic Recycling Plant in Greater Accra

A defining moment in our journey culminated with a visit to a plastic recycling plant in Accra . It was a testament to the power of innovation and perseverance, witnessing first-hand the transformative potential of recycling in mitigating the detrimental impact of plastic waste. It was a beacon of hope amidst the chaos, reaffirming our faith in the possibility of a greener, more sustainable future. However, the downs included seeing a few handfuls of recycling plants in Ghana, especially in the face of the sheer volume of daily plastic waste. It was a sobering reminder of the magnitude of the problem. Witnessing the life cycle of plastic, from its inception to its eventual fate (recycled, burned, or unmanaged), left an indelible imprint on our consciousness.

Lessons Learned and Future Guidance

Reflecting on our remarkable field data collection expedition, we sincerely appreciated the complexities and nuances of water and waste management in Accra’s slums. From the invaluable relationships forged with local communities to the innovative methodologies employed, each experience left an indelible mark on our understanding of sustainable development. Moving forward, we remain steadfast in our commitment to advocating for community and scientific-driven solutions, fostering environmental consciousness, and empowering local stakeholders to become agents of change in their own right.


As the sun sets on my unforgettable escapade in Accra’s slums, I invite you to join me in embracing a collective vision of sustainable living and responsible waste management. Together, let us champion a future where every drop of water and every piece of waste is nurtured with care, respect, and an unwavering commitment to preserving our precious planet for generations to come. Cheers to new beginnings and endless possibilities on the path to a greener, cleaner, and more sustainable world!