The vast amounts of plastic dumped in Senegal is suffocating the West African nation. But it is finally waking up to the problem as companies drive forward initiatives to help the country clean up its act.
A superhero is stalking the streets of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. But instead of a flowing cape, he wears a floor-length robe composed of black plastic bags that rustles in the wind as he walks. The face of Modou Fall (pictured), also known as “Plastic Man”, is barely visible beneath the trash. His mission is not to fight violent crime but to clean up the coastal West African country through discouraging the use of plastic products and emboldening his compatriots to recycle whatever they can.
“The people don’t want to change their behaviour and I wanted to show them that, little by little, the plastic bags we use every day threaten to kill us,” says Fall, who started the initiative on his own in 2006. “There is so much plastic. There is poison in those bags.”
Plastic Man is just one example of a growing number of efforts to increase plastics recycling in Senegal. It’s estimated that 6,500 tons of rubbish are thrown out every day and litter is a common sight on Dakar’s beaches. Grassroots initiatives such as Dakar Clean City organise rubbish collections and are launching public-education campaigns about recycling. Yet due to a lack of infrastructure and public awareness among the 16 million-strong population, it’s a hard sell; just 1 per cent of plastic is recycled. As a result, businesses are increasingly taking it upon themselves to tackle the problem.
At the vanguard of these efforts is Simpa in Dakar. With 1,000 employees, it is one of the country’s largest plastic factories. It first bought a machine to recycle and repurpose plastic waste nearly a decade ago, says deputy manager Khalil Hawili. “It’s heartbreaking to see how dirty the city is,” he says. “We cannot stand by and do nothing.”
Hawili’s family, who are dual Senegalese-Lebanese citizens (see box), have owned the factory since 1990. The company makes packaging for products such as milk powder but has become increasingly concerned about single-use plastics. So a decade ago it began working with a recycling-focused company called Proplast Industries to repurpose used plastic into furniture and household staples.
The idea is simple: Proplast operates street stands throughout the capital and buys suitable rubbish from people for xof75 (€0.10) per kilo. It then sends it off to be cleaned and processed at a nearby factory and sells the resulting plastic flakes to Simpa for xof350 (€0.40) per kilo. These are then turned into items such as small, brightly coloured household objects; other companies also turn them into tables and matching stools. Happily, it’s been a resounding success. “Every month we recycle 300 tons of raw materials,” says Hawili.
All of this comes amid a push from president Macky Sall’s government to focus on decreasing waste; he launched a “Zero Trash” campaign shortly after being re-elected last year. The ministry of the environment is also drafting a new and timely law that will ban single-use plastics and require companies to recycle as much plastic as they produce.
Such efforts have been criticised by some for hurting the bottom line of an industry that is worth tens of millions of euros per year to the Senegalese economy, which is otherwise mainly based on agriculture. But Hawili says that it will push people in the right direction. “It’s not an issue for us because we didn’t wait for the law in order to be prepared,” he says. “All laws concerning recycling and cleaning up are good.”
Lebanese in Senegal
A wave of people from modern-day Lebanon migrated to Senegal to look for work between the 1880s and 1920s, according to Mara Leichtman, author of a book on the subject. Some soon established themselves as intermediaries between the French colonialists and Senegalese farmers in the crucial peanut industry – still one of Senegal’s largest exports. It was the launch of the community into the country’s business world. Today, for example, much of the plastics industry is run by second- and third-generation Senegalese- Lebanese such as Hawili. The population numbers in the tens of thousands, although many no longer consider themselves Lebanese. “I know Senegal better than Lebanon,” says Hawili. “We feel at home here.”