A Visit to a Different World

 

I have been trying to come up with some coherent thoughts on my visit to the Mbeubeuss landfill in Dakar for the last few weeks. It was quite a shocking experience to get to visit the landfill, but hard to figure out how to describe my lasting impressions in a much more elaborated way than ‘wow that landfill, it was crazy!’ This is mostly because it was crazy and very hard to conceptualize a place like this coming from Canada. I have never visited a landfill at home, and my experience with them doesn’t extend much further than seeing a mound off the side of a highway which is on its way to being covered over with grass and far from houses and neighbourhoods and being told that is or was the communities landfill.

Mbeubeuss is a wild landfill which opened to serve the department of Dakar in the 1960s. It now spans 60 hectares and when you are standing in the active site there are mounds of garbage as far as the eye can see. I took a couple pictures when we were driving back from the far edge of the landfill, and if you don’t look too closely, it seems like you are looking at hills in the distance but they are actually the mounds of trash that rise up several stories high. It is quite difficult to conceptualize 50 + years of trash coming to this site.

This being a wild landfill means that there are few regulations and little in terms of health and safety precautions. Typically in the ‘best practice’ recommendations I have read for landfilling once a large portion of a landfill is full to its capacity, a rehabilitation plan is put in place and vegetation is planted to both keep the garbage and other contaminants contained to start some environmental remediation of the site and to prevent further disposal. As little of this is done at Mbeubeuss, when driving through the landfill, you can see smoke from fires burning in the garbage.

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The smoke is visible above the piles of garbage, but it is really hard to estimate how big a fire is as they burn under the surface and can spread quickly with access to oxygen pockets due to improperly compacted waste. This also makes a garbage fire at a landfill hard to control once it has started, as you can’t estimate from the surface how far the fire is burning through the pile. 

There are regulations on biomedical waste disposal in the landfill, but the way this is regulated was one of the most disturbing revelations from the visit. When a truck arrives at a site, it is weighed and the driver is given a ticket which specifies how much he will be payed after dumping the garbage which is calculated considering the weight of the truck and the length of his route to the landfill. As disposal of biomedical and other wastes considered hazardous is forbidden (this type of waste is supposed to be incinerated at a controlled facility) as a truck arrives at the active site it is inspected to ensure that it does not contain biomedical or hazardous waste. The part of the explanation that was really surprising was that if biomedical waste is identified by the inspector, the driver is penalized by having his pay slip marked to not be paid for this load. And then the load is dumped at the active site just as any other truck load would be.

We watched as a few trucks approached the active site to unload. As each truck slows down, 100 + informal waste collectors swarm the truck and hop on to try to position themselves to get quick access to the items that they are looking to collect and sell. The informal collectors are a very interesting group at the landfill. As this expansive site has been here for so many years and separation of recyclable and reusable waste is very minimal this landfill has attracted informal collectors for decades. In recent years, an association of informal collectors has been formed which has ~ 2500 members. These people live in the community next to the landfill and their claim, collect, sort and sell a high portion of the waste entering the landfill. These people certainly live a hard life, but work hard and have tried to improve their situations on their own terms by forming the association. They now have a school and health center in their community and have recently received approval to build a new school, which will be able to accommodate more students which will benefit the community in educating more of the youth who with little access to education often become waste pickers at a young age. The association also works to get its members heard on different issues as they have little formal social standing. Their name Bokk Diom signifies the spirit of the group meaning unity, courage working together and sharing the same objective.

The Mbeubeuss landfill site is quite astonishing and it is certain that there are quite a few steps to be taken for improvements in health and safety, environmental regulations, education of the population on benefits of waste collection and separation before being disposed of at a landfill site or otherwise to be taken in Dakar and other areas of Senegal before typical Western standards for waste collection are met. It is also very interesting that when the topic of what area I am working in comes up with Senegalese and expatriates there is one consistent thread, waste disposal needs to get better. People have a variety of reasons, places that they notice could improve or things that shock them most and almost always also say it must be a hard area to work in as it is quite a large problem to tackle. Organizations like the one I am working with in Dakar, l’Institut Africain de Gestion Urbaine are certainly working with various communities within Senegal to start to make these changes, doing lots to divert waste from landfills before it arrives and inform key community members to get the message out when improvements to the system come into play.

However, it does make me see garbage everywhere. Just yesterday I was walking with a friend and almost unconsciously found myself stopping, whipping out my camera and saying ‘just one sec, have to take a picture of garbage’ (this is a real story) and then continuing on with the walk like nothing had happened. However in the last couple weeks, since the visit to the landfill I have been thinking about and spotting in my travels the many ways waste is already valorised here, though there is no formal recycling or waste separation system in place. Water bottles of different sizes are collected, sold (25 CFA for a 10L bottle is the going rate I believe) and used to as pots for plants. This weekend we also stopped on the side of the road to buy vegetables, and the children of the vendors also noticed we had quite a stash of 1.5 L bottles in our car, and started asking us for the emptiest quite excitedly as their families were also selling milk and reused water bottles for local sales.

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Water bottle potted plants like this one, can be purchased on the side of the road front plant vendors all over Dakar, as well as from the municipal plant nursery in Patte d’Oie. Smaller plants and seedlings are also started in the bottoms of the 1.5 L bottles

There is also quite a bit of collection that is done to make art from recycled materials. Fabric scraps are also often used to make attractive toppers for jams and chutneys (how could you ever throw out pieces of this sweet wax fabric! Read- I am a sucker for a nicely dressed jelly!).

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Pickled cashew apples with a wax fabric hat 

It is quite interesting how at first you really only see the garbage that has been unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road, or in a field. It is absolutely certain that systemic changes are needed to improve waste collection, separation, treatment, to educate people and promote proper disposal of waste. However, it is really interesting to see the innovative ways that people here work within the system that they have and create livelihoods or beautiful and functional items to create value from waste. So in addition to unconsciously snapped pictures of garbage I have seen as I pass through the streets of Dakar, I also hope to feature some of the local innovations in my photo journal on sustainable waste management which I will prepare as part of the Sustainable Cities program at the end of this internship!

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