Ghana: Second-hand clothing floods Accra’s beaches

Image: Vestiaire Collective

It takes hours for fisherman Nii Armah and his 30 workers to haul in their heavy nets on busy Korle Gonno Beach in Ghana’s capital Accra. Finally the catch appears. In addition to a large arrow pike, there is also unpleasant prey: discarded bundles of clothing.

Where fish once cavorted in the nets, tons of old clothes from nearby are now tangled up Kantamanto market, one of the largest textile markets in the world, are thrown into the Atlantic. “We have lost our nets to the clothing of markets,” Armah told AFP. “And the fish disappear – and with them our livelihood.”

Kantamanto Market, whose stalls mostly sell second-hand clothing and shoes, covers 20 hectares in the heart of Accra’s business district. According to the city-based environmental organization OR-Foundation, traders here import 15 million items of clothing every week. However, around 40 percent of textile waste ends up in landfills and is washed into the sea, which can pose health risks for the population and also significantly damage the environment.

Ghana emerged as the world’s largest importer of used clothing in 2021, according to The Observatory of Economic Complexity, an international trade data platform. The garments worth $214 million (around €199 million) come mainly from China, Great Britain and Canada. The spread of fast fashion over the last two decades has led to an even greater wave of clothing waste from richer countries and, consequently, low prices for Ghanaian retailers due to declining quality.

After explosion: Ghana without a landfill

Although the textile business is said to have created up to 30,000 jobs, local non-governmental organizations see an “environmental and social emergency” as Ghana earned less than one million US dollars (around 929,000 euros) from exporting used clothing to other African countries in 2021.

The clothing “is often thrown away indiscriminately because our waste management system is not very advanced,” said Justice Adoboe of the Ghana Water and Sanitation Journalists Network. “When it rains, floods wash the old clothes into the drains where they end up in our waterways, destroying aquatic life.”

The Accra Metropolitan Assembly spends around $500,000 annually collecting unwanted items from the Kantamanto market. However, their capacity is only sufficient to dispose of around 70 percent of market waste. Leftovers are either burned to pollute the air or disposed of in sensitive ecosystems, as the OR Foundation reported.

In August 2019, Ghana’s only landfill exploded after it was flooded with old clothes. The associated closure leaves Accra one of the fastest growing metropolises in the world without a suitable landfill site.

‘sea tentacle’

The consequences are devastating: There is no longer any sand to be seen on some parts of Accra’s beaches. Piles of discarded textiles and plastic often pile up one and a half meters high. Over the course of a year, beach guards from the OR Foundation counted around 2,300 so-called textile ‘tentacles’ – the tangled masses of old clothes – along a seven-kilometer-long coastal strip of the city. On average, one piece of clothing can be found every three meters; some ‘tentacles’ are dozens of meters long and contain huge amounts of textiles.

Although the Ghanaian capital does not have the infrastructure needed to handle such a deluge of waste, the industry is seeing “significant growth,” according to Ganyo Kwabla Malik, head of Accra’s compost and recycling plant. The Ghanaian government was initially hesitant to propose solutions, probably out of fear of public backlash due to the threat of job losses. In 1994, she tried to ban the import and sale of used underwear for hygiene reasons. Despite another attempt in 2020, the law has not yet been implemented.

According to Accra city government estimates, a new landfill could cost around $250 million (around €232 million), without taking into account the environmental damage that has already occurred. However, Malik rejected a complete ban on trade and said the waste should be destroyed in incinerators to generate energy. “If you have the infrastructure to support such investments, why ban them?”

However, for the fisherman Armah, the government must act quickly. “We are pleading with the authorities to do something,” he said. “The sea is all we have.” (AFP)

This article originally appeared on Translated and edited by Heide Halama.