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How an Initiative in Ghana Comprising the World’s Biggest Plastic Producers Failed to Deliver 

Plastic pollution is dangerous in countries with little formal waste collection. It piles up, choking drainage so it exacerbates floods and fires. Ghana creates more than 1 million pounds of trash each year and recycles just 5%. In 2015, floods killed more than 200 people in Accra, the nation’s capital; a later government report found that trash clogging waterways helped to make the flooding worse. There were some calls to ban plastics in the wake of the tragedy. Today though, Ghana has been heralded as a success story in the region. It’s thanks in part to the corporate sponsored recycling project called Ghana Recycling Initiative by Private Enterprises (GRIPE). The project is backed by some of the world’s biggest conglomerates: Coca-Cola, Danone, Nestle, Unilever and Dow Chemical. The problem is GRIPE is a lot better at shirking the blame and avoiding regulation than actually recycling. In the latter half of the 2010s, GRIPE was mentioned positively at international meetings and collaborated on initiatives with government officials from the UK. However, as the Bloomberg investigation makes clear, consumer-facing marketing to consumers in Ghana—rather than making any real effort to change the status quo—seems to be all that GRIPE has accomplished in the years since its founding. A 2020 European Commission report on the state of recycling in Ghana found that “little high-impact results have been achieved so far” from the program, despite an “active social media presence” from GRIPE. Current membership in GRIPE is dirt cheap for the international conglomerates who benefit from the good PR it brings them: documents obtained by Bloomberg show that yearly membership is $5,800. (Nestle pays just $1,850.) For a huge company like Unilever, it’s a negligible amount: less than 0.0001% of its global marketing budget. Importantly, GRIPE itself doesn’t pay for plastic collected; rather, it’s purchased by outside partners. Ghana’s lack of any facility that can turn plastic bottles into new ones also makes selling the collected plastic bottles, which will have to be shipped to Europe, much harder.