‘Everyone’s Looking for Plastic.’ As Waste Rises, So Does Recycling.
Plagued by plastic pollution, Senegal wants to replace pickers at the garbage dump with a formal recycling system that takes advantage of the new market for plastics.
By Ruth Maclean
Photographs by Finbarr O’Reilly
- Jan. 31, 2022, 3:00 a.m. ET
DAKAR, Senegal — A crowd of people holding curved metal spikes jumped on trash spilling out of a dump truck in Senegal’s biggest landfill, hacking at the garbage to find valuable plastic.
Nearby, sleeves rolled up, suds up to their elbows, women washed plastic jerrycans in rainbow colors, 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, demand for packaged, mass-produced products.
This has given rise to a growing industry built around recycling plastic waste, by businesses and citizens alike. From Chinese traders to furniture makers and avant-garde fashion designers, many in Senegal make use of the constant stream of plastic waste.
Mbeubeuss — the dump site serving Senegal’s seaside capital of Dakar — is where it all begins. More than 2,000 trash pickers, as well as scrubbers, choppers, haulers on horse-drawn carts, middlemen and wholesalers make a living by finding, preparing and transporting the waste for recycling. It adds up to a huge informal economy that supports thousands of families.
Over more than 50 years at the dump, Pape Ndiaye, the doyen of waste pickers, has watched the community that lives off the dump grow, and seen them turn to plastic — a material that 20 years ago the pickers considered worthless.
“We’re the people protecting the environment,” said Mr. Ndiaye, 76, looking out at the plastic scattered over Gouye Gui, his corner of the dump. “Everything that pollutes it, we take to industries, and they transform it.”
Despite all of the efforts to recycle, much of Senegal’s waste never makes it to 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 back and forth in the Senegalese surf, 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 bigger scale. By 2023, the African Union says, the goal is that 50 percent of the waste used in African cities should be recycled.
But this means that Senegal also has to grapple with the informal system that has grown up over decades, of which the grand dump at Mbeubeuss (pronounced Mm-beh-BEHSE) is a major part.
The recycled plastic makes it to enterprises of all stripes across Senegal, which has one of the most robust economies in West Africa.
At a factory in Thies, an inland city known for its tapestry industry to the east of Dakar, recycled plastic pellets are spun out into long skeins, which are then woven into the colorful plastic mats used in almost every Senegalese household.
Custom-made mats from this factory lined the catwalk at Dakar Fashion Week in December, focused this time on sustainability and held in a baobab forest. Signs were constructed out of old water bottles. Tables and chairs were made of melted down plastic.
The trend has changed the focus of the waste pickers who have worked the dump for decades, gleaning anything of value.
“Now everyone’s looking for plastic,” said Mouhamadou Wade, 50, smiling broadly as he brewed a pot of sweet, minty tea outside his sorting shack in Mbeubeuss, where he has been a waste picker for over 20 years.
Adja Seyni Diop, sitting on a wooden bench by the shack in the kind of long, elegant dress favored by Senegalese women, agreed.
When she first began waste picking, at age 11 in 1998, nobody was interested in buying plastic, she said, so she left it in the trash heap, collecting only scrap metal. But these days, plastic is by far the easiest thing to sell to middlemen and traders. She supports her family on the income she makes there, between $25 and $35 a week.
Mr. Wade and Ms. Diop work together at Bokk Jom, a kind of informal union representing over half of Mbeubeuss’s waste pickers. And most of them spend their days searching for plastic.
A few days later, I bumped into Ms. Diop in her workplace — a towering platform made entirely of rancid waste that is so hostile an environment that it is known as “Yemen.” I almost didn’t recognize her, with her face obscured by bandannas, two hats and sunglasses, to protect her against the particles of trash blowing in every direction.
Around us, herds of white, long-horned cattle munched on garbage as dozens of pickers descended on each dump truck emptying its load. Some young men even hung from the tops of trucks to catch precious plastic as it spilled out of the trucks, before bulldozers came to sweep what remained to the edge of the trash mountain.
Most of the pickers who target plastic, like Ms. Diop, sell it, at about 13 cents a kilogram, to two Chinese plastic merchants who have depots on the landfill site. The merchants process it into pellets and ship it to China to be made into new goods, said Abdou Dieng, the manager of Mbeubeuss, who works for Senegal’s growing waste management agency and has brought a little order to the chaos of the landfill.
Senegal is flooded with other countries’ plastic waste as well as its own.
China stopped accepting the world’s unprocessed plastic waste in 2018. Casting around for new countries to export it to, the U.S. began to ship plastic to other countries, including Senegal.
But that is beginning to change, too, as the Senegalese government appears to be cracking down on plastic waste coming from abroad. Last year, a German company was fined $3.4 million when one of its ships was caught trying to smuggle 25 tons of plastic waste into Senegal.
In the past two years, the number of trucks coming to Mbeubeuss daily 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 as part of a joint project with the World Bank.
Then, most of the money made from plastic waste will go into government coffers. The waste pickers worry about their livelihoods.
Mr. Ndiaye, the last of the original waste pickers who came to Mbeubeuss in 1970, surveyed what has been his workplace for the past half-century. He remembered the large baobab under which he used to take tea breaks, now long dead, replaced by piles of plastic.
“They know there’s money in it,” he said, about the government. “And they want to control it.”
But Mr. Dieng, the government dump manager, insisted that the pickers would either be given jobs at the new sorting centers, “or we help them find a job that will allow them to live better than before.”
That doesn’t reassure everyone.
“There are many changes,” said Maguette Diop, a project officer at WIEGO, a nonprofit organization focused on the working poor worldwide, “and the place of the waste pickers in these changes is not clear.”
For now, though, hundreds of waste pickers have to keep on picking.
Dodging bulldozers, piles of animal guts and cattle, with curved metal spikes and trash bags in their hands, they head back into the fray.
Mady Camaracontributed reporting.A Planet Awash in Plastic
Ruth Maclean is the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, based in Senegal. She joined The Times in 2019 after three and a half years covering West Africa for The Guardian. @ruthmaclean