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The challenges of a young woman from Ghana along the Volta River contaminated by dyes and microfibres

Swimming to denounce pollution

 Swimming to denounce pollution  ING-024
16 June 2023

A 450-kilometre swim against fast fashion pollution; down the Volta River and across Lake Volta, collecting samples of water polluted by dyes and microfibres, residues of second-hand clothing or waste that reaches Ghana from the world’s top polluting countries. The swimmer’s name is Yvette Tetteh and she is 30 years old. She is from Ghana, and, in addition to being an athlete, she is an agribusiness entrepreneur and an activist with the environmentalist organization, Or Foundation. “I learned to swim as a little girl, in my family’s pool, when I lived with my mother in the South African city of Johannesburg”, she explains. “There, having a swimming pool wasn’t uncommon for the middle class”.

Tetteh had to train for the expedition down the Volta, a river that empties into the Atlantic and flows from what was once called Upper Volta and which today is Burkina Faso. She trained six days a week for seven months in order to be able to swim for three hours, with a break every 20 minutes, drinking water and dried bananas. The fruit is from Yvaya Farms, an organic [fruit] company Yvette founded in Accra after her university studies in the United States. For some time, it has also been importing to Italy, through the Bologna-based company, Makadamia.

The swimmer’s mission began on 7 March near the village of Buipe, with arm strokes on the water’s surface, alongside a kayak carrying a documentary film maker and an assistant to collect the water samples. Tetteh’s mission is to denounce the consequences of fast fashion, an industry of waste that harms the environment, a fact confirmed by the samples collected in the Volta and by the Kantamanto Market, in the capital city, Accra, where a significant portion of the 15 million used or throwaway garments imported to Ghana each week from Europe or North America, end up. According to Or Foundation estimates, only 40 percent of these products are resold, while the remaining items end up in landfills or ever more often in ditches and on beaches. In Ghana these discarded garments are called “obroni wa-wu”, an expression in the Akan language that can be translated as “dead white man’s clothes”, a local term referring to non-African consumer habits.

Some days ago, the eu Parliament discussed the issue of pollution, when a delegation of merchants from Kantamanto met with deputies and speakers from the European Commission. Solomon Noi, Director of the Waste Management Department of Accra [Metropolitan Assembly], reported that in the Ghanaian capital, between 2010 and 2020, 10 overflowing landfills at risk of collapse were closed, and that waste treatment capacity is never above 30 percent of discarded clothing.

This month, a legal project related to the Extended Producer Responsibility ( epr ) — a concept that encourages businesses to focus on more sustainable goods and processes from a circular economy perspective — should be presented at the European Parliament. According to delegates from Kantamanto, the current draft of the text does not provide for adequate support for disadvantaged countries. What’s more, the fee companies owe for their throwaways, of barely five euro cents a piece, should be increased to at least 50.

Small change that in theory could make a difference, as long as the general framework is kept in mind. Ghana, like Nigeria and other countries in Africa, and especially in the Sahel, is historically a cotton producer. However, the arrival from abroad of clothing items at bargain prices often drives local businesses out of the market. Ultimately, the blame lies with the impulsive buying of new clothes, which is fuelled by the advertising market and, which in turn, fuels the overproduction that is typical of fast fashion.

To explain what happens, Yvette uses the expression “waste colonialism”. “It’s the global North’s colonialism of waste”, she says. “I felt it on my skin: the waterways of the region of Accra are swollen with synthetic microfibres that have accumulated over the years”.

Vincenzo Giardina