With very limited access to drinkable water in Africa, the distribution of Pure Water bags has been organized since the 2000s. And has led to an environmental plague, countervailed in Burkina Faso, Togo and Ghana by recycling projects.
“Puuuuure wateeer.” In Western Africa is isn’t rare to hear this shrill and loud call in the streets coming out of the mouth of a mum or a small girl wearing on her head a basin containing small bags of fresh water. Tap water isn’t in every household, drilled water is often unfit for consumption, and bottled mineral water too expensive (on average, €0.65 a bottle, nearly as much as Coca-Cola or beer). These 500ml bags, of which you just need to tear off the corner with your teeth, are the main consumption mode of water in countries where the minimum salary comes close to €45 a month.
Pure Water bags offer several advantages that made their success. They are economical (€0.03 per unit), available everywhere and at all times (because fixed and mobile points of sale are omnipresent), transportable, and last but not least fresh, since they are sold in cool boxes or in basins filled with ice. This last advantage is far from negligible in Africa where families owning a refrigerator are rare.
Health risks and pollution
But these bags, the production and commercialization of which are not much controlled, also represent a fraudulent business dangerous for one’s health. Some are filled with tap water, untreated or from illegal drilling. On top of that, severe hygiene problems occur, due to the packaging and storage of the bags (unsanitary premises, dilapidated facilities). Despite the proven health risks (a deadly cholera epidemic declared in Ghana in 2013), this water compensates for the shortfalls of the water distribution networks.
Other major problem, the habit consisting in throwing the empty bags in the street, on the ground, after consumption. Made from low density polythene, they are not biodegradable. The plastic therefore piles up on the ground, holding back rain water with a double problem: the creation of mosquito and bacterium nests and the impossibility for the rain water to enter the soil making the terrain potentially at risk of flooding. Not to mention animals that swallow them and sometimes choke on them.
P^3 bags in Burkina Faso
In Ouahigouya, in the North of Burkina Faso, Gaëlle Nougarede, president of the association Movement France, has been investing herself for nearly four years in the creation of a recycling and transformation center of these plastic bags. The P^3 project (“Plastique Projet Pochette”) is taking a crucial step forward at the moment, with the construction of the center made of earth, thanks to crowdfunding.
Last year, a vast operation was carried out, putting out bins in strategic places of the small town in order to sort these plastic bags and make their recycling easier.
Eleven jobs were thus created for the women in charge of collecting and cleaning the bags in order to create objects from Pure Water bags and pagne. In 2016, more than a ton of Pure Water plastic bags were recycled in this manner.
“Plastic is the cancer of Africa. We are also thinking about finding alternative solutions to Pure Water bags to tackle the problem at its source.”
Gaëlle Nougarede, Movement France
In Togo, the Zam-Ké objects (“Reuse me”)
“We create objects made to last: I have had my Zam-Ké handbag for more than Four years,” proudly says Aimée Abra Tenu, the dynamic director of STEJ Togo. This NGO supports several social businesses including Zam-Ké, meaning “Reuse me” in local language. Set up in the Agoe-Demakpoe district, on the outskirts of Lomé, the workshop was able to unite. Around ten families were in charge of collecting bags, women appointed to wash them and a whole team of seamstresses trained to sew these plastic bags to make pencil cases, waste paper bins, handbags, wallets, umbrellas, backpacks, shopping bags, sponge bags, etc.
In case there is an important order, like back to school kits for local associations, Zam-Ké also calls upon prisoners trained in sewing for the assembly step of the bags, before the patterns are cut out.
To widen recycling activities, the company is also transforming advertising canvas. There is no lack of ideas and the collection of products is growing.
In Ghana, the art of Pure Water
Benjamin Adjetey Okantey, who is finishing his art studies at the Kwame Nkrumah university, made Pure Water bags his raw material. Appreciative of the plastic qualities of the bag, its transparency, its coloring, and its format, he is creating monumental installations by sewing these bags together to obtain huge surfaces.
Benjamin Adjetey Okantey proposes true experiences for visitors, who find themselves almost prisoners of these huge plastic bubbles. This change of scale allows the artist to condemn the failure of the public sector to distribute drinkable water throughout the country.