DAKAR, Senegal – Crowds of people holding curved metal spikes jumped over trash spilling from a dump truck at Senegal’s largest landfill, hacking through the trash to find valuable plastic.
Nearby, sleeves rolled up, foam up to their elbows, women were washing rainbow-colored plastic jugs, cut into pieces. Around them, piles of broken toys, plastic mayonnaise jars and hundreds of discarded synthetic wigs stretched as far as the eye could see, all ready to be sold and recycled.
Plastic waste is exploding in Senegal, as in many countries, as populations and incomes grow and with them the demand for packaged and mass-produced products.
This has given rise to a growing industry built around the recycling of plastic waste, by businesses and citizens. From Chinese traders to furniture makers and avant-garde fashion designers, many in Senegal make use of the constant stream of plastic waste.
It all began in Mbeubeuss, the dump serving Dakar, the seaside capital of Senegal. More than 2,000 waste pickers, as well as washers, shredders, transporters on horse-drawn carts, middlemen and wholesalers make their living by finding, preparing and transporting waste for recycling. This is in addition to a huge informal economy that supports thousands of families.
For more than 50 years at the landfill, Pape Ndiaye, the oldest waste picker, has seen the landfill community grow and see it turn to plastic – a material that 20 years ago waste pickers considered as worthless.
“We are the ones protecting the environment,” said Mr Ndiaye, 76, looking at the plastic strewn on Gouye Gui, his dumping ground. “Everything that pollutes it, we bring it to the industries, and they transform it.”
Despite all recycling efforts, much of Senegal’s waste never ends up in landfills, instead littering the landscape. Knockoff Adidas sandals and containers that once held a local version of Nutella block drains. Thin plastic bags that once contained drinking water meander through the Senegalese waves like jellyfish. Plastic shopping bags burn in residential neighborhoods, sending clouds of chemical-smelling smoke into the hazy air.
Senegal is just one of many countries trying to clean up, formalize the waste disposal system and embrace recycling on a larger scale. By 2023, according to the African Union, the goal is for 50% of the waste used in African cities to be recycled.
But that means Senegal also has to grapple with the informal system that has grown over decades, of which the big dump of Mbeubeuss (pronounced Mm-beh-BEHSE) is an important part.
Recycled plastic is reaching businesses on all sides across Senegal, which has one of the most robust economies in West Africa.
At a factory in Thiès, an inland town known for its upholstery industry east of Dakar, recycled plastic pellets are spun into long skeins, which are then woven into the colorful plastic mats used in almost all Senegalese households.
Carpets made to measure by this factory lined the podium at Dakar Fashion Week in December, this time focusing on sustainable development and organized in a baobab forest. Panels were constructed from old water bottles. Tables and chairs were melted plastic.
The trend has changed the focus of waste pickers who have worked the landfill for decades, gleaning anything of value.
“Now everyone is looking for plastic,” Mouhamadou Wade, 50, said with a broad smile as he prepared a sweet mint teapot outside his sorting shack in Mbeubeuss, where he has been a waste picker for over 20 years old.
Adja Seyni Diop, sitting on a wooden bench near the hut in the kind of long, elegant dress favored by Senegalese women, agreed.
When she started picking up litter, aged 11 in 1998, no one was interested in buying plastic, she said, so she left it in the trash, not only recovering scrap metal. But these days, plastic is by far the easiest thing to sell to intermediaries and traders. She supports her family with the income she earns there, between $25 and $35 a week.
Mr. Wade and Ms. Diop work together at Bokk Jom, a kind of informal union representing more than half of the waste pickers in Mbeubeuss. And most of them spend their days looking for plastic.
A few days later, I bumped into Ms Diop at her workplace – a towering platform made entirely of rancid trash that is an environment so hostile it is known as “Yemen”. I almost didn’t recognize her, her face covered by bandanas, two hats and sunglasses, to protect her from the particles of detritus blowing in all directions.
Around us, herds of long-horned white cattle munched on trash as dozens of scavengers descended on each dump truck to dump its load. Some young men even hung from the tops of the trucks to catch the precious plastic spilling out of the trucks, before bulldozers swept away what was left at the edge of the mountain of rubbish.
Most collectors who target plastic, like Ms. Diop, sell it, at about 13 cents a kilogram, to two Chinese plastic dealers who have deposits at the landfill. Merchants process it into pellets and ship it to China to make new products, said Abdou Dieng, the director of Mbeubeuss, who works for Senegal’s growing waste management agency and has put some order in the chaos of the landfill.
Over the past two years, the number of trucks coming daily to Mbeubeuss has increased from 300 to 500.
But the government says that in a few years the giant landfill will close, replaced by much smaller sorting and composting centers under a joint project with the World Bank.
Then most of the money from plastic waste will go into government coffers. Waste pickers worry about their livelihoods.
Mr Ndiaye, the last of the first waste pickers to arrive in Mbeubeuss in 1970, surveyed what has been his workplace for the past half century. He remembered the big baobab under which he took his tea breaks, long dead, replaced by heaps of plastic.
“They know there’s money in there,” he said of the government. “And they want to control it.”
But Mr Dieng, the government’s landfill manager, insisted that the collectors would either be hired at the new sorting centers, “or we would help them find jobs that will allow them to live better than before”. .
This does not reassure everyone.
“There are a lot of changes,” said Maguette Diop, project manager at WIEGOa non-profit organization focused on the working poor around the world, “and the place of waste pickers in these changes is unclear.”
For now, however, hundreds of waste pickers need to keep picking up.
Dodging bulldozers, heaps of animal and cattle guts, curved metal spikes and garbage bags in hand, they return to the fray.
Mady Camaracontributed report.