NGOR, Senegal – Fisherman Samwu Ndaye is a volunteer who every morning combs the beach of Ngor, a 400-year-old village on Africa’s westernmost tip in the Senegalese capital Dakar, to clean up the waste plastic that builds up there.
Single-use plastic products of every kind litter the villages along Senegal’s coastline along with other waste that gets washed up at different spots throughout the year, depending on the prevailing winds and ocean currents.
“If we don’t clean it, no one will,” said Ndaye, who is one of a growing number of volunteers who dedicate their time to cleaning up what has rapidly become a modern scourge.
The waters around Dakar are heavily polluted with plastic and “more arrives each day,” according to the fisherman.
As the world’s population grows, so too does the amount of waste that is generated, leading to a vast environmental problem on a global scale which waste management is just beginning to have an impact on.
However, in low and middle-income countries, like Senegal, this process is all too often underfunded or simply neglected.
One-third of Senegal’s population of 16 million people lives below the national poverty line.
The rapid growth of the West African country’s population, especially in larger cities like Dakar, has led to a hike in the production of household waste.
Fishing and tourism are the main industrial activities in Senegal, but the fishing industry is experiencing a decline due to over-fishing and water pollution.
Fishermen like Modu Samba, who 25 years ago used to be able to go out in pirogues, a locally hand-made dugout boat, a few hundred meters off the shore, now have to venture tens of kilometers offshore to catch fish.
Over-fishing by European and Asian industrial fishing fleets is a contributing factor, but water pollution has driven fish stocks further offshore.
Systematic municipal waste collection and disposal is lacking in many areas, so residents deal with garbage in their own way, by burning or dumping it along the shorelines.
A lack of education on what the impact of such practices might be has led to it becoming prevalent along Senegal’s long coastline.
The discarding of plastic is seen as acceptable and the concept of littering is not widely understood.
All this plastic landing on the ground eventually ends up in stormwater drains, rivers and finally enters the ocean.
After storms, big waves chew up the beaches to reveal layer upon layer of plastic and other waste that has been dumped over the years.
Single-use plastics are commonplace in Senegalese society. Shops and supermarkets offer single-use carrier bags for free and these are usually accepted by shoppers without a second thought.
Water, eggs, peanuts and a multitude of other items are sold in single-use containers by traders everywhere.
The worst time of year is during the Harmattan season, which occurs between the end of November and the middle of March.
It is characterized by a dry and dusty northeasterly trade wind. The winds blow large amounts of plastic from the continent directly into the Atlantic Ocean.
Environmentalists have pointed to successes achieved in other African countries, like Rwanda, which is in the process of banning single-use plastic.
“The problem needs to be tackled from the top down and the bottom up,” Ndaye said as he stooped down to grab a handful of plastic bags from a wave washing ashore. “We can do something to help clean this beach and teach the children but we also need the government to do better with our waste and ban these plastics.”