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‘Everyone’s looking for plastic.’ As waste rises, so does recycling

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 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.

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Senegal is just one of many countries trying to clean up, formalise
the waste disposal system and embrace recycling on a bigger scale. By 2023, the
African Union says, the goal is that 50% 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 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 more than 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.

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Wade and Diop work together at Bokk Jom, a kind of informal
union representing over half of Mbeubeuss’ waste pickers. And most of them
spend their days searching for plastic.

A few days later, I bumped into 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 recognise 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, such as 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, 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 US began
to ship plastic to other countries, including Senegal.

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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 to 500 from 300.

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.

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 Dieng 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 organisation 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.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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