rePATRN: Community, Environment & Product
Updated: Apr 14
In 2000, the UN defined 8 Millennium development goals. These eight international development goals were what the UN described as the first step in eradicating pressing issues affecting the vast majority of humans, even as we were ringing in the 21st Century. The last but one goal (7th) was entitled “Ensure environmental sustainability”. This goal was defined in sub titles called “targets”, with each addressing specific areas of focus.
I often come across bot people familiar and unfamiliar with the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals). Regardless of their knowledge about this existing UN defined goals, almost all these people are in agreement that we are currently facing climate and environmental crisis and something needs to be done. However, Global Warming seems to be on everybody's tongue as the pending issue to tackle. On the contrary it is rare that the majority of these people, consider waste a llikewise monumental environmental threat. Let alone one they think they can change or have such a contributing hand in. In fact even rarer is any consideration for plastic waste and its wide spreading effect on every immediate part of the environment and us.
When looking into the specifics of the 7th Goal and its “Target”, I can relate all 4 to the lack of or poor (plastic) waste management;
7A: The integration of principles in line with sustainable development via country policies and programs to reverse the loss of environmental resources.
7B: To reduce the current loss in biodiversity by 2010.
7C: Halving the world`s population without sustainable access to safe water and sanitation.
7D: Significant improvements in the lives of 100 million (urban) slum dwellers.
At the time, many applauded the effort it took to pin point and acknowledge these global issues. However, critics were quick to point out the superficiality of these goals. Mainly due to a lack of understanding (history, politics, and or geography) and needed research into long lasting and sustainable processes to progress. At the very least it was argued that there was no way to measure success, let alone progress. Many environmentalists still believe that the UN simply did not prioritize efforts towards goal 7. Even today, there are many people, including politicians that say none of the other goals will matter if the current global environmental state cannot be drastically improved.
In 2015, the UN met again to review progress made on these 8 goals. It was concluded that progress was inconclusive. Even at this result, past supports began to lose hope.
While it is vital to push for policy changes. It is equally as important to support research and promote educational awareness of the urgency and the damaging effects on humanity, of this crisis. For now the reality is we have a lot of waste, and industry that is still producing waste potential, including plastic. This means in addition to refusing unsustainable practices and materials, for the vast majority of people that are still consuming, we need innovative ways to tackle existing waste.
There are people, like Jeffery Provencal, taking matters into their own hand and creating business to address the environmental crisis through such innovative waste management solutions.
Akwaaba und Wilkomme (welcome) Jeffrey! I am glad and grateful for your time and interest to do this interview. I think we have a lot in common when it comes to the places, we call home (Switzerland and Ghana) and our eagerness to want to see and bring about an attitude and mental shift in the way people relate and understand the Environment and treat it with regards to their actions and waste. Could you please shortly introduce yourself and what rePATRN is and does?
Thanks a lot, Bella!
Well, my name is Jeffrey Provencal, born and raised in Switzerland to Ghanaian parents that left Ghana to study. After studying and working in finance I decided to look for a career that was a little more fulfilling. I came across the concept of impact investing during research for my thesis and was hooked instantly. That’s where the idea was born to start a business that has a social and an environmental impact which doesn’t take away from financial sustainability.
Is plastic waste an issue that Ghanaians see and understand as an environmental one?
Absolutely! It’s a nuisance to everyone but only a select few seem to care enough to do change their consumption habits, advocate for change and/or start a business to tackle the issue.
How does the employment of locals in your business help to promote social awareness in the local communities you work with?
It helps a great deal. Our team takes our cause home and into their social circles and promotes what it is we do. Unfortunately, the main message that comes across is that plastic is a resource because we pay for it. The fact that we’re cleaning the environment and thereby helping to mitigate a serious environmental issue is sometimes lost on people. Therefore, when people engage in collection, they do it for the money and not because they want a cleaner environment but they can’t really be blamed given their financial situations and their resulting basic needs.
What in your experience, what is the reason for the lack of governmental and privatized infrastructure needed for responsible and sustainable waste management?
I’m guessing it’s due to a lack of prioritisation. There are other topics that seem to be more pressing than waste management. This seems to hold true in many developing nations.
Growing up, it was common to come across black “rubber” / “polythene” (plastic) bags. Towards the beginning of the 2000s, they became so prevalent that it was common place to see an animal mistake it for food and consume it. I noticed you often make refrence to plastic bottles in particular. Have plastic bottles become the new prominent plastic waste form or is there any other reason why you use plastic bottles?
My research showed that while some other plastics are being recycled locally, there is no solution for plastic bottles. That’s why I figured it would be a great niche to get comfortable in. That’s why I focused on plastic bottles made from PET.
Who uses your services? private clients, industry, government or nonprofit?
So, we don’t engage in any collection. As a processor we simply buy what the market has to offer thereby creating an additional income stream for informal waste collectors, the core of our business.
Throughout Europe, Countries are now moving towards the goal of banning single use plastics like straws and shopping bags. Could this work in the case of Plastic bottles? Especially in a coastal country such as Ghana where oceans are getting directly and indirectly polluted simply because of the existence of this product?
No chance. At least not in the near future. The tangible benefits simply outweigh the intangible cost at this time. Companies are now moving from glass to PET. So we’ll see a massive surge before that conversation is started.
What sort of durable and high value products are you turning the plastic flakes into?
As of now the process ends with flakes in Ghana. In order for us to produce an end product locally we need to have a sustainable inflow of PET of 8,000 tons annually. That’s why our focus currently is on volume generation. We do however work with companies that make incredible things out of them. Stay tuned for more on that!
On your website, you make outline key parts to your process. Could you give us a sense of the level of manual labor, time and or energy that is required by this process?
Right now everything is very manual. When the bottles are delivered we sort them by color, remove labels, caps and rings before shredding them to flakes. But we’re currently working together with clients to find out how we can reduce the manual labor involved without tampering with the quality of the product.
How sustainable is the process? And how are you aiding to resolve the environmental impact of plastic waste?
Where do you export the flakes to for re-inclusion? And how much demand is there to purchase and recycle your plastic flakes into products? Is this demand sufficient enough to make an impact or is it too undervalued?
It’s a volume game. The more material we can move, the bigger the impact on the environment. And the bigger the volume the easier it is for us to be sustainable. The demand for our product is huge. We get regular requests from Asia and South America. So selling the product is not the challenge. Aggregating the volumes is.
What are some of the challenges you have faced since launching rePATRN?
Which challenge haven’t I faced? At the end of the day I knew it was going to be a journey with ups and downs. I was fortunate enough to have the right people around me at all times to mitigate the blows I took.
How successful (in terms of figures and social impact) has rePATRN been since you launched?
None of us (rePATRN staff other stakeholders) have become rich but we’re still in this. So pretty successful so far I’d say.
Last year, Akkufo-Addo (current president of Ghana) promised Ghanaians that Accra would be the cleanest city on the African continent within the next four years. Do you see action towards this being taken by the government? (If so, how and if not, how does this need to be addressed?)
There are many initiatives that have sprung up. And policy change is in the works too but those things take time. We’re getting a lot of support from government as they recognise the importance in what we do. Not sure if he’ll achieve that goal in one term but it a second maybe?
Do you feel supported in anyway by the UN`s 7th MDG ? Do you think they become more achievable once issues like this have been identified by an organization as large as them?
Have you been able to branch out the idea to any other country except for Ghana?
We want to do that now. The more people in West Africa know that we’re buying PET the quicker we can reach our annual target volume of 8,000 tons.
You mention on your website that by the end of the century, over 80% of the world’s population will find itself concentrated in Asia and Africa. I for one believe the future lies in these continent`s potential. Especially on the content of Africa, where there is still so much to be realized in their resources and opportunities to reproach current global issues. Specifically, sustainable Environmental, Social, economic and political structures. Working on the ground in a country such as Ghana, is this becoming more evident the longer you live and work there?
Absolutely! There’s opportunities here are abundant. I urge anyone who has the patience to embark on the beautiful struggle of entrepreneurship to have a long and hard look at Ghana.
Seems redundant after my last question, but why did you choose to run rePATRN in Ghana?
Ghana ranks fairly well on the Ease of Doing Business Index.
The fact that we have family ties here helped make that decision a no-brainer too.
With regards to links between Ghana and Switzerland (or the west), Are the Swiss and other foreign countries helping to aid the progress sustainability and waste management projects/companies such as yours?
How long ago was plastic did single use plastics, start to make an appearance in Ghana?
Yes, it’s a popular topic to get engaged in. But it seems as if development corporations fail to fully understand the local context they cater their solutions to. That leads to most projects failing within 3 - 5 years.
The saying goes REFUSE, reuse and recycle. The first step often gets overlooked. However in refusing to purchase products that are made of unsustainable or toxic materials, such as plastics, many would argue doing so would mean we avoid damaging waste from the start. And thus, when demand for these materials drop, they will stop being produced. I do know that it is a privilege to have this choice though and that not all people have access to alternatives. However, in the 90s and early 2000s while I still lived in Ghana, the Coca-Cola company had all their drinks available in glass. There was even profit to be made in returning these bottles back to the Coca-Cola company’s manufacturing sites. This system worked very well with Ghanaians. Except for the burning to plastics or littering into the ocean and soil. This would also be healthier than using plastic which contains toxins that can leach under the Ghanaian sun`s heat into clean drinking water. In the case of clean drinking water couldn’t this also be done to replace plastic with glass bottles as a whole? And use systems such as the one your company has developed, to manage the waste that has been left over?
No, ma’am. Plastic is a blessing and a curse. It’s too good for our own and the environments sake. Its cheaper than glass, lighter, which improves cost of transportation and more durable than glass. That is why more and more beverage companies are moving from glass to PET bottles. I don’t see a way that trend could be reversed.
Why don’t the same companies that produce these plastics, take on the responsibility to collect and re-introduce the material waste into their manufacturing process?
How do you hope to impact local communities with your venture?
Because there is no local solution for food grate rPET yet. That’s what we’re working on.
We hope that through our work we’re able to create employment opportunities for informal workers to make a living and become a part of the formal economy, and educate people on the proper treatment of plastic waste and thereby keep their environment clean and healthy.
Thank you once again for your time, and your work in trying to restore environmental balance at such a crucial time in our existence as humans.