It’s not difficult to find clean water in Ghana’s bustling metropolis, Accra. As you drive down the streets or walk through the markets, hawkers approach you, balancing huge bowls filled with cold water sachets on their heads. They’re a cheap and convenient alternative to bottled water, and among the many diverse brands and levels of quality, they hold something in common: they’re made of non-biodegradable plastic and they’re clogging up the city streets with waste.
Recycling in Ghana isn’t unheard of, but it’s not widespread, and lack of recycling infrastructure in many locations means that plastic sachets – from water and other products – simply get tossed on the ground. The problem is compounded by a lack of awareness and education on recycling.
But there is an alternative – and it’s considerably more fashionable than littering. Trashy Bags, a social enterprise based in Accra, takes approximately 200,000 plastic sachets off the street each month and upcycles them into eco-friendly bags. The business claims to have recycled around 20 million plastic sachets since it began production in 2007.
With its more than 60 local employees, Trashy Bags produces 350 variations on a list of standard products that includes laptop bags, purses, wallets, backpacks and more. To make a reusable grocery bag, for example, it takes about 70 sachets.
Many others contribute to the organization by collecting water and ice cream/frozen yogurt sachets (called Fan Ice). Water sachets are purchased by Trashy Bags for 0,5 Ghana cedis per kilogram and the less common Fan Ice sachets earn 6 Ghana cedis for 1,000 pieces. Collectors apparently earn up to 40-50 cedis ($11-$13) per week. Once brought into the Accra processing centre, the sachets are checked for quality and cut along one side so they can be thoroughly washed inside and out. Sachets that are damaged are sold to a recycling plant.
The plastic packets are stitched together into sheets, then cut to the appropriate pattern. They’re intentionally not melted down or reprocessed, both to minimize energy use and to make a visual statement to encourage upcycling/recycling. Some of the products, known as ‘Trashy Ad Bags,’ are made out of recycled billboard advertisements, making each item completely unique. The processing is more precise, because bags may be designed to showcase the face of a local celebrity used in the advertising, for instance, which can be sold for a higher price. The bags are lined with foam and then with local fabric; both are sourced from within Ghana or more broadly in West Africa.
Along with being sold in Trashy Bags’ showroom, a number of global retailers order the products in bulk and resell them, including businesses in the Netherlands, Germany, Lebanon, the United States and Norway. NGO Global Mamas is one such example.
With an estimated 270 tonnes of waste produced per day in Ghana from plastic packaging, according to the organization, Trashy Bags’ efforts are only a drop in a very large bucket of waste. But its efforts in the education on the importance of recycling, the provision of local employment and helping to clean the physical environment are of crucial importance and will hopefully continue to grow.