Nation as wasteland for ‘Obroni W’awu’ – an environmental injustice issue

James Mensah, Graduate Public Service Intern at the Office of Environmental Justice, Illinois EPA, USA.

In September this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a public notice in which it announced plans to embark on a national inventory and situational analysis of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) from October 2 to October 11, 2023. The results, according to the notice, “will inform policy interventions, business promotion and inform appropriate treatment options within the e-waste value chain. As an environmentalist, I find this laudable and a step in the right direction.

However, also deserving of attention is a similar environmental issue resulting from our overdependence on imported secondhand goods, of which e-waste is a major by-product. This article aims to draw attention to the dark side of secondhand clothing (SHC) in Ghana – how our country has become a wasteland for SHC, exacerbated by Global North’s fast fashion.

Obroni W’awu

“Obroni W’awu” is an Akan phrase meaning dead white man’s clothing and is perhaps the most remarkable amongst the many assumed names of SHC in Ghana. It was believed that SHC was a collection of clothing belonging to dead white people. Though not factual, that narrative is not far from the truth.

Indeed, SHC originates from Global North as cast-offs from individuals. Charity and non-profit organizations gather, process, and add value to them for charity projects. On average, only 10percent (usually the best grades) of the collections are sold in Global North. The remainder (including worn outs) are shipped to low-income countries in the Global South. That is how “dead white man’s clothing” is dumped in Ghana under the guise of charity.

Waste not treasure

With its Katamanto market being arguably the largest SHC market in the world, Ghana is a top destination for SHC. Research has indicated that about 90percent of Ghanaians use SHC. Despite its popularity in Ghana, SHC is not something to be treasured as its negative impacts on our environment, public health, and local textile industries far outweigh any benefits.

The quality of SHC imported to Ghana has reduced drastically over time, especially in the fast fashion era. Of every bale of SHC offloaded in the Katamanto market, about 40percent (an estimated 4 to 6 million garments per week) wind up as waste in the overfilled municipal landfills, where they are burnt, generating harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Several of the waste end up littering the beaches and the Kole Lagoon due to illegal dumping resulting from the lack of a robust waste management system.

Environmental injustice issue

In Global North, SHC trade is heralded as good business for keeping clothing in circulation. But circulation has only become a means to shift the environmental burden from the Global North to low-income countries like Ghana. Some charity organizations involved in the trade pride themselves as promoters of sustainable fashion while giving back to society.

In my view, this is only to promote their corporate image because the true value of their donations lies in the consequences of the donations. Secondhand trade has created a situation where hazardous wastes from high-GDP countries are indirectly disposed of in low-GDP countries, giving rise to what was termed “waste colonialism” in 1989 at the UN Environmental Programme Basel Convention working group. In contemporary times, this is called environmental injustice due to the disproportionate environmental burden the situation creates for low-income countries.

The South Africa example

One would suggest a complete ban on the importation of SHC to address the issue. That will require Ghanaians to resort to buying new clothing from stores and shopping malls. But it would be too much to ask from a country whose masses struggle to make earns meet. I would suggest South Africa’s example. The South African government regulates the importation of used goods by requiring importers to obtain import permits, allowing the government to control used goods that enter the country. This creates a de facto ban on importation of waste, unwanted, and low-quality goods.

Apart from protecting domestic textile production and other manufacturing goods, import control is essential to protect the environment and human health. The Permits control system is more effective than Ghana’s Legislative Instrument (LI) 1586 of 1994, which sought to ban only used undergarments but has never been enforced. It should not take a lot of effort for Ghana to adopt South Africa’s example in addition to measures the EPA may adopt to tackle the issue.

>>>the writer is an environmental professional and currently a Graduate Public Service Intern at the Office of Environmental Justice, Illinois EPA, USA. He can be reached via [email protected]

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