During our stay in Dakar we had been very aware of the pollution of the water. The air always had a slight smell of sewage, and on one of our walks we had seen that it was indeed true that the sewage from the city emptied directly out into the anchorage; a small river of a thick, black substance, which it was impossible to walk past without gagging. Plastic was everywhere; in the streets, on the beach and in the water. Looking through Instagram, it appears that a whole bunch of people in the west seem to think that buying hair brushes made of wood and stainless steel water bottles and posting it under hashtags like #RefuseReduceReuse and #ZeroWaste will solve the world’s problems.
But what are the people to do in Dakar? On a good day, the people “working” in the yacht club (actually hanging out, hoping that somebody needs them to help carry water or diesel to the jetty, paying them maybe 50 cents for the help) can afford to buy a coffee the size of an espresso, and that will carry them through to dinner time. And yes, the coffee comes in a small plastic cup. Which ends up on the beach. The country simply doesn’t have a way to deal with waste of any kind, like it doesn’t have a waste water treatment plants to improve the water quality in the bay. And even though the Senegalese people probably on average use much less plastic than we do in a first world country like Denmark (generally, rich countries generate more plastic waste), a lot of plastic is used, and making changes is simply not on their agenda of the people who have so many other things to worry about.
After arriving in Dakar, we soon realized that the garbage we brought to the CVD ended up in a pile and was eventually simply burned in an open fire. This releases highly toxic gases and is definitely not a great solution for the local people. So the question is, what can we do? Well, for a start we can make sure that we have as little an impact on the pollution as possible. We have for years been aware of normal things like bringing our own bags to the grocery store, but when the effect of a single plastic bag is so in your face as is the case in West Africa, we came to never accept a piece of plastic if we could help it.
In Europe and America, mesh bags for fresh produce is becoming a thing, and we do have and use some of these. But if we forget them at home, the grocery sellers in the Senegalese markets simply weigh the produce you’re buying, and it just as easily goes directly in your tote bag. No problem.
In the supermarkets we have to fight a bit more to not get the thin little plastic bags of the type that seem to be the norm outside of Europe. The employers in the supermarkets are simply not used to people bringing their own bags, and we tend to tell them with a smile and an expression of “yes, I know it’s strange, but please just bear with me”. Sometimes we have to let them know several times that we really don’t want the plastic bags, but it always works in the end.
Our mesh grocery bags are a bit more complicated to understand for the cashiers, and we have had cashiers remove the produce from our bag to a plastic bag to weigh it, after which I then put it bag in the mesh bag and give them back the plastic bag, which then goes in the bin. And yes, it feels stupid like that, but my hope is that if we can do nothing else, we can at least show the locals that we as Europeans do it differently (and yes, I know this isn’t true on the large scale at all), and that maybe somebody will stop and think about making a chance in their own country.
Another little thing we do is to always bring our stainless steal bottles with water. We never ever buy bottled water. Apart from this saving a lot of plastic, it also helps us stay hydrated as we always have water in the bag.
In Morocco, we would collect some pieces of plastic each on the beach every time we went for a walk. Again, it makes no difference in the big picture, but at least we teach our kids that we care and that we have to take action, even if we can only do a little bit. And maybe, just maybe, one of the locals will see what we do and start wondering if they should do something too. Though I know, that most just think that we are plain crazy. But that’s okay. In Dakar we didn’t collect plastic on the beach, even if there was loads to get. Because there was nowhere to put it, and our best guess is that it would end up in the ocean again. I find that it’s a fine line between caring, and being condescending. Telling people that their place and their habits disgust us is definitely not the way forward – and it wouldn’t be true anyways.
So in the end, we hardly do anything. We just try to not make the world too much of a worse place.