By Rose Skelton in Dakar
The beach at Petit Mbao on the outskirts of Dakar is awash with rubbish, like most other beaches in this Atlantic city. But the rubbish at this beach is different: it’s heaped into neat piles and a man in a high-visibility vest is scooping it onto the back of a horse-cart. The man works for Stephan Senghor, a Senegalese businessman who’s trying to find a way to turn Senegal’s love of plastic into a profitable business, whilst cleaning up Dakar along the way.
The cupboards of Senghor's house, just behind the beach, are filled with rubbish. “I’m seeing what companies pile up,” he says, picking up a tin can made by a French supermarket chain, which has the ‘please recycle’ symbol printed on the label, despite being distributed in a country where there is no formal recycling system. “Then I’ll find out how those companies can be part of the solution.”
Senegalese-born Senghor returned from living in Canada 18 months ago to help with the clean-up operation after heavy rains flooded Dakar’s outskirts well into the dry season. Working with a local team, he emptied water canals and natural drainage lakes that had become blocked. The clean-up team were left with plastic bottles, sachets, bags, rice sacks, shoes, buckets and tyres.
Senghor decided to find a way he could make this discarded plastic into something profitable, which would employ local people. He started melting different plastics with sand to create different products – paving stones, bollards, and pylons – to see what would work. “The idea of plastic recycling has been around in Europe for a long time, we are all used to it now. But here it is a relatively new thing,” he says.
The business angle is threefold: to produce high-quality construction materials at a competitive price (the base materials are largely free, after all); to sell the low-grade plastic as fuel to companies such as cement producers who are keen to find an alternative to oil and gas; and to re-use as much as possible – viable in a country where small-scale producers struggle to find affordable packaging for their products.
The side effects of the business have also been encouraging. The beach at Mbao has bins on it and people are using them. Senghor employs a team of 50 people during the rainy season to pump out flood water and clear the canals of plastic, and a team of 10 during the rest of the year. He wants to turn Mbao into a tourist spot, with its beautiful clean beaches and proximity to Dakar.
“I’m not a non-profit organisation,” he says, looking out across the turquoise bay to Dakar shimmering in the distance. “I’m a business. I’m just finding ways to make money out of cleanliness.”