Q&A: Activist Betty Osei Bonsu on plastic waste, finding solutions, and galvanizing youth

World leaders to negotiate a global treaty that addresses the plastic pollution crisis

Betty Osei Bonsup stands at a lectern giving a speech in a blue blazer and white shirt

No plastic in nature

WWF urges world leaders to act strongly and decisively in developing the full content of the treaty by 2024.

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Globally, we're facing a plastic pollution crisis at a scale we've never seen. But the impacts of this crisis are not felt equally. From the production to the disposal of plastics, the most vulnerable communities often experience the worst effects of pollution. 

The nature of the problem underscores the inequity of a global economy that prioritizes disposability over sustainability. Many wealthy nations send their plastic waste to low- and medium-income countries that lack adequate infrastructure to properly manage it. But the low investment in waste management and varying standards of national regulation have not kept pace with the surge in plastic production, particularly during the past 20 years. As a result, the cost to low-income countries specifically is 10 times that of high-income countries, and a staggering 93% of the deaths associated with plastic production and disposal are in those countries.

Plastic pollution is a crisis of our own making. However, the good news is that we can fix it. The UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution provides a landmark blueprint for ensuring that plastics never end up as trash. There is strong backing for the treaty among governments and businesses, buoyed by overwhelming support among global consumers to reduce plastic pollution.

We believe the treaty can provide a crucial turning point to a more sustainable, equitable global economy. To realize this ambitious outcome, WWF is calling for a set of binding rules that include international bans and strict regulation on the highest-risk single-use plastic and microplastics.

Activists play a significant role in encouraging governments to effectively tackle the plastic pollution crisis. Among them is Betty Osei Bonsu, 26, who grew up in a small town in Ghana and serves as the country manager for the Green Africa Youth Organization in Uganda where she implements major sustainable community projects. Her work focuses on building community capacity for environmental and waste management, creating green jobs, inspirational storytelling, and mobilizing youth activists. 

Read on to learn about how she's working toward solutions and mobilizing youth—for people and the planet.

Betty, can you tell us what inspired you to become a youth activist focused on plastic pollution and environmental conservation?

As I reflect on my childhood in the heart of a rural under-resourced African community with a high poverty rate, I am transported back to a world where waste wasn't a choice—it was a lifeline. I lived in a community where discarded waste was bought at a lower cost in the market by the poor. I couldn't help but notice that those with more abundant means had the luxury of choice: a choice to discard, a choice to waste. It was in this experience that I came to the realization that marginalized people have always been the unsung heroes of recycling, while the rich often had the privilege of squandering resources without a second thought.

My second contact with waste was during my undergraduate studies when I identified the problem of deforestation and an abundance of palm kernel shell waste. I then locally produced fuel briquettes from these discarded shells for household energy. They have a high calorific value and burn with less smoke emission. This project was awarded the best in my department and was featured in the scientific journal Helion Elsivier as a more sustainable energy source for communities. Today this project is supporting several small-scale and medium enterprises in Africa, serving as a baseline for researchers, promoting healthier communities, and fostering partnerships.

From beaches in Ghana to remote areas, plastic pollution is everywhere. I recall vividly that, at the age of 10, this waste was used to fill waterways for houses to be built. It was dug out from the gutters and buried. My elders would look at me and say, Don't worry. You won't see it again.' Fifteen years down the line, this was a lie. That plastic pollution was only waiting for me to grow. It never disappeared. Now, I am a youth advocating for solutions within my community. But the question remains: how can the UN Global Agreement on Plastics meet the needs of future generations?

What are the most significant challenges you've encountered in your advocacy work, and how have you overcome them?

Gender bias and the perception that young individuals, especially females, lack the ability to drive meaningful change have been persistent obstacles. Overcoming this bias required immense determination. I've had to continually prove my capabilities and competence in various initiatives. In 2021, I walked into the municipal director's office in the Greater Acca Municipal building and asked for them to partner with us on our Zero Waste project. They said, You are 23 years old and a female, what can you do?' Breaking down these stereotypes is an ongoing process, and my success in projects like the Zero Waste initiative is a testament to the power of persistence and passion.

Financial constraints have often posed a significant challenge. To address this, I've learned to maximize the impact of available resources. Instead of relying solely on funding, we've adopted strategies like forming partnerships with local organizations and leveraging volunteers. By doing so, we've managed to achieve substantial results with minimal financial resources.

In the past, I've observed young activists working in silos, independently pursuing similar goals. This lack of coordination created conflicts and resulted in a duplication of efforts. Recognizing this issue, we established the Youth Climate Council as a platform to foster collaboration among youth activists. This initiative has empowered young climate activists to work together and amplify their voices collectively. This is currently implemented across the globe. It's essential for governments to recognize youth as vital stakeholders and include them in decision-making processes.

Effective communication is a cornerstone of successful advocacy, but often young activists underutilize available communication tools and platforms. To address this, I've made it a priority to harness the power of social media, storytelling, and digital platforms. These tools allow us to reach a broader audience, share our experiences, and highlight our initiatives—increasing our impact and engagement.

Finally, encouraging other young people to get involved in environmental advocacy was sometimes challenging. Many of them felt disempowered or apathetic about these issues. To overcome this challenge, I founded the Green African Youth Organization Eco Club Campus Chapters to embark on youth-focused programs and mentorship opportunities. By showing them that their voices mattered and that they could be catalysts for change, we managed to mobilize more young activists.

Could you share some of the most impactful initiatives or projects you've been involved in to combat plastic pollution among youth and in your community?

We've developed Zero Waste City Models that serve as a blueprint for cities to manage their waste effectively. These models divert waste from oceans, mangrove ecosystems, and landfills, significantly reducing methane pollution and enhancing city resilience. What started in Ghana at one municipal assembly has now expanded to four other cities in Ghana and in other African countries, including Uganda, Botswana, Mali, and Kenya.

With this model, we're able to incorporate climate education into community projects and schools to raise awareness about climate risks and solutions. We have established eco-clubs within universities that serve as ambassadors and environmental stewards, and we've embarked on changing behaviors in communities.

Material recovery facilities serve as hubs for training and as recycling and sorting grounds for segregated waste. Buyback centers are created within communities to assist in the communal recovery of waste. There are fixed costs for returning plastic waste. We are also establishing coin-based refillable water dispensers to prevent the excessive purchase of plastic refills.

Meredith Soward chats with Betty Osei Bonsu at an event

Meredith Soward, who works on global plastic policy for WWF, speaks with Betty Osei Bonsu at a high-ambition briefing event about the global treaty to address plastic pollution. 

The model also helps women and youth find green jobs and activities for income. We train them to use municipal waste as raw materials, such as upcycling plastics like drinking water sachet bags and bottles into raincoats, handbags, and aprons, and creating urban gardens, composting, and farming mushrooms. These community-based enterprises foster a circular economy that generates economic opportunities and reduces environmental impact.

We also onboard informal waste pickers and community ambassadors. Here we acknowledge their contribution to waste management and the need for recognition from major stakeholders. And we create partnerships and support small and medium-sized enterprises to scale up collections within communities while bargaining for better trading market prices.

Finally, we work with municipal assemblies to integrate no-burning laws into local policies, along with proper waste management guides.

Our project has empowered more than 3,000 waste-pickers and supported small to medium-scale enterprises in various African countries. We've initiated programs to provide young people with seed funding for community-led initiatives, promoting entrepreneurship and sustainability.

Municipal assemblies are now spending less to recover waste from communities since the people who live there are playing an active role in waste management.

In your opinion, what role do young people play in the fight against plastic pollution, and how can they make a difference locally and globally? How do you engage and inspire other young people to join the fight against plastic pollution?

Youth can play a significant role in ensuring a plastic-free environment by advocating for sustainable policies, developing skills in green industries, starting or joining green businesses, and actively participating in the implementation of strategies to combat plastic pollution. 

We bring fresh perspectives and innovation to this space. For example, when age and gender biases were raised within a municipal assembly regarding a circular economy project in Ghana, I responded by emphasizing that age is not a barrier. I underscored that the innovative ideas and experiences of the youth—combined with the wisdom of older generations—have the potential to drive sustainability. Today, this project is the most successful of its kind in the country and is replicated in other communities and countries.

Youth are no longer just holding placards and demanding action. They are actively engaged in creating solutions, especially by leveraging local and Indigenous resources. This shift in mindset empowers young people to address environmental challenges proactively and contribute to lasting change.

As an environmentalist, climate activist, and storyteller, I am inspiring young people by using my platform B. Inspired with Stories from Africa and engagements to mobilize them to demand action on climate change, take action in their communities, and contribute to finding sustainable solutions to municipal solid waste.

“Young people are the leaders of today, not tomorrow.”

- Betty Osei Bonsu

How do you envision the future of the plastic pollution movement?

In my vision for the future, I see a community that goes beyond managing past mistakes and actively steers towards a future where its members are not just stewards of the environment but architects of socio-economic development and champions of climate resilience. In Ghana, where 73% of the 2.5 million metric tons of imported waste is mismanaged, and where only a fraction of the daily 12,000 metric tons of waste is properly collected and disposed of, my goal is to witness a future where waste is a rarity, and effective waste management becomes the norm. I believe that the media has a crucial role to play in this transformation. Shifting the media paradigm to advocate for waste reduction and promote the value of reuse can dramatically reduce household waste. Additionally, incentivizing sustainable consumption through behavioral changes and accessible, affordable, reusable packaging alternatives can be a game-changer. My vision for the future is one in which we celebrate resourcefulness, effective communication, capacity building, and corporate accountability as we collectively work towards a cleaner, more sustainable world.

What are your thoughts on the importance of policy changes and government involvement in addressing plastic pollution, and what steps should be taken to create lasting change?

To combat plastic pollution effectively, governments and organizations should be mandated to transparently report their plastic waste management efforts, encompassing collection, recycling, and disposal. Establishing robust accountability mechanisms that penalize non-compliance and incentivize proactive measures is vital to drive change and ensure responsible plastic management.

At the local level, the government should actively promote conversations that revolve around the adequacy of plastic management, particularly in cases where plastic is produced elsewhere and consumed locally. Asking the right questions and participating in these discussions can lead to improved waste management practices and greater environmental responsibility. Embracing diversity in choices and practices can lead us to more sustainable and mindful living, steering us away from the environmental pitfalls of a profit-centric mentality.

Drawing upon lessons learned from global standards and agreements on waste management is crucial. And we should replicate successful models and practices from various countries. Ghana can adopt valuable practices from places such as Uganda, where people boil tap water for consumption, eliminating the need for plastic sachets, and Kenya, where polyethylene bags have been banned. This approach avoids the one-size-fits-all assumption and allows for adaptation to diverse national contexts, recognizing that environmental challenges are dynamic. Policies must evolve with time and involve all stakeholders, including youth. Governments should proactively promote youth platforms advocating for climate justice and policy reforms. Setting up educational programs, mentorship initiatives, and dedicated platforms for youth involvement can facilitate their meaningful participation in shaping the future of plastic management, ensuring a more sustainable and cleaner environment for all.

As a youth activist, what message or advice would you give to other young individuals who aspire to become leaders in environmental advocacy?

Let your passion be your guiding light. Find your purpose within the environmental movement and become an expert in your chosen field. Young people are the leaders of today, not tomorrow. Take real, tangible action and collaborate with like-minded individuals and communities to tackle complex issues. Empower other young leaders and hone your advocacy and storytelling skills to inspire change. Embrace lifelong learning and celebrate even the smallest victories. Maintain optimism with a sustainable legacy mindset. Remember that your actions, no matter how modest, can pave the way for a cleaner, more sustainable future.