Buying water in plastic sachets has become popular in Africa because it's cheap and clean. But the discarded sachets pose a huge trash problem. One organization has found a way to clean up Accra's streets and earn money.
Pure water sachets came to West Africa 10 years ago. The half-liter bags sell for 2 euro cents, providing a cheap and clean source of water for many. But the solution to a water problem generated a trash problem in Ghana's capital, Accra
The blue and white sachets litter Accra's streets. Along with other trash, they clog sewage drains. When it rains, the streets flood.
Turning trash into treasure
British architect Stuart Gold didn't want to accept the problem as intractable. In fact, he saw an opportunity to clean up the city at little cost.
"When I arrived in Accra six years ago, it was clear that they had a gigantic problem with trash, which was mainly generated from plastics. So we came up with the idea to rework the plastic into a second product," he said.
Gold founded the non-profit organization "Trashy Bags" and started to makes hand bags from the discarded water sachets.
Sacks of empty sachets arrive at Gold's factory in the heart of Accra every day.
The 60 Trashy Bag employees rework the sachets in a multi-step process. First, they wash the sachets at least three times, disinfect them and leave them to dry in the sun.
Next they are sorted by color and sewn into strips. Workers turn these strips into laptop bags, sports bags, pencil cases, wallets.
This kind of recycling is frequently known as 'upcycling,' because the finished products have a higher value than the material from which they're made.
Still looking for the right market
Ironically, the added value is less appealing to Ghanaians than it is to foreigners.
"In Accra, it's mainly immigrants or tourists that come here to buy handbags," said Stuart Gold. "We export to other countries, like the Netherlands, the UK, the US or Japan."
And Germany, too. In Cologne, Bernard Erkelenz runs an online business called Africa Recycled. He stocks Trashy Bags along with other upcycled craftwork from Ghana. Colorful pearls, scarves woven with mosaics, and patchwork quilts.
Erkelenz thinks Trashy Bags have a better future in Ghana than abroad. "Trashy Bags are a designer product with a special label, a special color and a special sound. They're not to everybody's taste," he said, brandishing a crinkly backpack.
"People in Germany don't know these water sachets, which is why I think that they sell better in Ghana."
Not that Erkelenz doesn't believe in his wares. He tested Trashy Bags gear on a trip to Africa and says it's surprisingly sturdy. The sachet's polyethylene makes the bags resilient - the same polyethylene that prevents Ghana's pure water sachets from degrading in the environment.
A visible impact
Erkelenz, who travels once a year to Ghana, says that since Trashy Bags was founded in 2007, he has noticed a vast improvement in the amount of water sachet's clogging Accra.
"If you compare the condition of the streets now with then, you see a huge difference. Even in the side streets there are fewer plastic sachets."
Trashy Bags claims to have upcycled about 20 million drink sachets. It's planning various projects in cooperation with other organizations to draw attention to solutions for trash problems.
Stuart Gold says his organization is looking into ways to subsidize his wares, to make Trashy Bags's products more affordable for locals.
"That way, Ghanaians can buy reusable shopping bags at a good price. The trash generated from plastic will decrease and it will also create more jobs."
Author: Vanessa Hermann, Hervé Gogua/kms
Editor: Nathan Witkop