Senegal: Africa’s New Waste Warrior?

13 Agustus 2019

Speaking Monday on the sidelines of Eid prayers, Senegalese President Macky Sall reiterated his commitment to making his country into a trailblazer in environmental protection. “I want Senegal to be identified as one of the cleanest countries in Africa”, Sall emphasized.

The president’s remarks came just days after his administration announced a set of comprehensive actions to fight the ever-worsening scourge of plastic pollution, including an upcoming bill that would ban a wide range of plastic, such as thick shopping bags. Thin polythene bags have already been banned since 2015, but enforcing this prohibition has so far proven challenging.

It seems that Senegalese authorities are newly determined to ensure that the ban is complied with, however. “We will go around shops…we have security forces who can support us,” explained Environment Minister Abdou Karim Sall. “We’re going to start enforcing this law in its full force.” Shopkeepers will face fines up to 50,000 CFA francs (US$85), a hefty burden in a country with a GDP per capita of $1,500.

Dakar’s sense of urgency in tackling the plastic catastrophe is understandable. A 2010 study by the journal Science ranked the country 21st in the world in terms of the quantity of waste being dumped in the sea at 254,770 tonnes—particularly troubling given the country’s promising beach tourism future.

The Senegalese government’s determination to tackle the plastic cluttering its shores and choking its fishing industry falls in step with Sall’s ambitious goal of a zero-waste Senegal. In his inaugural speech earlier this year following his re-election, Sall pledged to undertake “vigorous” environmental action.

Even in his first term, the president was one of Africa’s strongest voices advocating for better management of the continent’s natural resources, including initiatives such as the “Great Green Wall”, a massive reforestation project stretching from Dakar to the Horn of Africa. As part of the scheme, Sall’s administration has already planted some 12 million trees.

Central to this bid to do more for the planet, however, is stamping out the corruption which has stymied environmental efforts throughout Africa. Senegal has in fact made huge progress in recent years in battling graft. Between Sall’s election in 2012 and 2018, Senegal climbed nine points in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, putting it two points above the global average. Transparency International’s West Africa coordinator pointed to a number of Sall’s policies, from a new anti-corruption institution to a declaration promoting transparency, as the likely causes of this rise.

In addition to addressing the corruption which has exacerbated environmental issues, Dakar is aiming to entice the manufacturing industry and households alike to clean up. According to one development agency, some 60 percent of Senegal’s manufacturing industry is based along the otherwise idyllic Hann Bay, and “empties its polluted effluents directly into the bay.” Further complicating the issue, some citizens without access to regular rubbish pickup dump everything from plastic bags to toilet waste along the bay. Among the initiatives Senegal’s environmental ministry is planning are public gatherings to educate the Senegalese people on the myriad harmful effects of plastic littering.

The government doesn’t have to convince Senegalese citizens like Mahmoud Sy—president of volunteer association Senegal Entraide— who advocated for innovative and proactive solutions by echoing John F. Kennedy’s famous call to arms:  “citizens should not ask what their district can do for them, but what they can do for their district,” he pronounced. Many Senegalese have already started small, informal businesses, collecting and disposing of trash further from the streets and the sea.

The country’s efforts to address the plastic crisis are particularly noteworthy given that Dakar itself is not wholly responsible for the problem: Senegal has become one of a few hotspots around the world which the West, particularly the US, relies on to dispose of massive amounts of plastic waste. According to a Guardian investigation last month, hundreds of thousands of tons of American plastic are being shipped yearly to developing countries, where workers are tasked with the filthy, labour-intensive and low-paid work of recycling the West’s waste.

Even more distressingly, while this mass of detritus arriving from across the Atlantic is ostensibly intended to be recycled, countries like Senegal often have no choice but to burn, bury or throw it into landfill. This is due both to the fact that much of the waste is too dirty or contaminated to be reused, but also the simple economic reality that recycling remains relatively unprofitable. “People don’t know what’s happening to their trash,” explained recycling expert Andrew Spicer. “The international recycling business sees it as a way of making money. There have been no global regulations – just a long, dirty market that allows some companies to take advantage of a world without rules.”

The multi-billion dollar global recycling industry’s dirty secret first came to light two years ago, when China— long the world’s largest importer of recyclables—suddenly announced it was closing its borders to 24 categories of recyclable waste. The developing world has been caught in the rip tide ever since the ban took effect last year.

Indeed, rather than consider China’s move a wakeup call for global plastic overconsumption, US-based recyclers merely found new destinations for American household waste—one of which was Senegal. Worse still, the US and the world’s major plastic producers have repeatedly pushed back against global campaigns against unnecessary packaging: earlier this year, 187 countries signed a treaty giving nations the power to block the import of contaminated or hard-to-recycle plastic waste. The US was not one of them.

It’s been left to Senegal and other countries in Africa to lead the charge against unnecessary plastic packaging. In Tanzania and Kenya, anti-plastic initiatives are setting the pace for the rest of the region, with Africa now leading the world in plastic bag regulations. Most notably, some 31 of these bans are in sub-Saharan Africa, the globe’s poorest region.

While African efforts to grapple with plastic waste are laudable, there can be no doubt that the world’s biggest waste-producing countries and industries need to do more to bear their share of the load.

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