Meet the plastic-clad activist fighting government apathy to pollution in Senegal
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Two years after Senegal banned single-use plastic on April 20, 2020, environmental activists say the law isn’t being upheld. One of these activists is a man named Modou Fall who is trying to raise awareness for the anti-plastic movement by walking around Senegal in a colourful, eye-catching costume made of plastic bags.
Activist Modou Fall certainly doesn’t go unnoticed when he walks around in his impressive suit made out of old plastic bags, toting a sign that says “No to plastic bags” alongside the Senegalese flag. Fall says he’s been fighting for the past 16 years to protect the Senegalese environment.
He says he first became aware of just how “dangerous” plastic is when he started cleaning the streets of the nation’s capital, Dakar, and realised that plastic bags made up a huge amount of the waste.
“It’s poison for the planet as well as for human health,” he repeats in the many interviews he’s done over the years. He also takes his message to social media, where he has garnered more than 1,500 followers on Twitter and TikTok.
Lhomme plastique fête chez 16ans de combats contre le péril plastique à guediawaye le 20 avril inchala pic.twitter.com/vX16GgD3DO— l'homme plastique (@PropreSenegal) April 14, 2022
'A lot of people thought I was crazy at first'
I’m a former soldier and I got the idea of creating a sniper costume during a clean up operation. I thought about how we see plastic bags every day, way too many of them, and that it was important to get people to understand just how much plastic there is out there. I needed to get people’s attention immediately. I created my costume in 2011… but it’s even more timely today, eleven years later.
A lot of people thought I was crazy at first! It’s true that, from afar, the costume can look a bit scary. But I’ve done more and more appearances over the years, especially at sporting events or religious gatherings. I do it for free, the aim is to raise awareness. And people have started to recognize me. These days, a lot of people want to take a picture with me and so it is easy to start a conversation with them to raise their awareness about the issue.
I do all different kinds of things. For example, I go out and collect discarded tires to change them into furniture and then donate the finished product to local schools. I also run free training sessions for organisations that want to have clean-up operations. I explain from A to Z how to run those kind of operations in an efficient way. I also provide information on how to recycle the objects they pick up.
'It’s good to pass a law, but not if there aren’t any incentive'
Two years after Senegal passed a law banning single-use plastic on April 20, 2020, activists say there aren’t strong enough incentives to incite real change. They are fighting for the adoption of ordinances that would establish a concrete plan for how the law will be enforced across different sectors.
These ordinances would establish, for instance, sanctions for industries or small businesses that don’t respect the law.
"The law says that there should be a 'minimum price' for plastic waste, which means you can’t sell waste for lower what it costs to recycle it… but this ordinance doesn’t actually exist!” says Sokhna Dié Ka, who runs a program for ensuring community rights within Natural Justice, an organisation for environmental law in Africa.
"We always see bags of water, even in the streets of Dakar. It’s part of the decor,” says Momar Baby, an activist with Zéro déchet Dakar (Zero Waste Dakar). The organisation says it is frustrated that the government didn’t work with environmental activists to create the law. Zéro déchet Dakar is part of a group of NGOs that published a list of thirteen recommendations for Senegalese authorities.
Modou Fall continued:
Voting in a law is good but not if there aren’t any incentives built in. Last year, we worked with several NGOs to come up with alternative solutions — like using reusable cloth or paper bags or investing in various channels to recycle plastic, like turning it into rugs or even bricks — because that actually exists! We’ve also been pleading for big shopping centres to have places where you can drop off plastic bottles for recycling. But unfortunately, there is no real political will. So the big companies aren’t playing the game and citizens aren’t invested in the movement.
@senegalpropre Forum mondial de l'eau plus de 8000 participants 40.000 bouteilles d'eau en plastique distribué par jour 240.000 bouteilles durant six jours félicitations au organisateurs sur la pollution plastique et le gaspillage de l'eau #lhommeplastic #senegalpropre #heinrichböll #pollutionplastique ♬ son original - Modou Fall3636 l'homme plastic
'Senegal doesn't deserve this!'
Fall worked for two years on a contract with the ministry of the environment to raise awareness within the Senegalese population about plastics. Today, however, he’s in conflict with his former employer, which he says owe him money. He says, however, that his own grievances aren’t important.
I don’t think Senegal is ready to adopt this ordinance — I haven’t seen any clear signs from the Ministry of the Environment that a real solution is underway.
In certain regions, for example, where there is very little potable water, the government still allows people to use bagged water [Editor’s note: the Senegalese government also loosened the law during the Covid-19 pandemic]. We shouldn’t be using plastic to respond to issues with infrastructure. We need a cleaner Senegal! Senegal doesn’t deserve this!
Last March, Minister of the Environment and Sustainable Development Abdou Karim Sall said that he was directed by President Macky Sall to strengthen the fight against plastic.
"Today, we are making progress, but there is still a lot to do,” he said. “The health of the ocean is intimately linked to the health of the population, the short life of populations", referring to the number of plastic bags thrown into the sea. However, he didn’t give any concrete information about the adoption of ordinances.
Senegal produces, on average, 536.56 tonnes of plastic waste per day, according to Africa Check, a fact-checking media based in Senegal, which was able to look at the most recent reports by the body in Senegal tasked with handling waste from November 2016.
Activists say that there are about 200,000 to 440,000 tons of plastic waste generated each year and only 5 percent of that is recycled. It’s impossible to verify these numbers, as there is no recent data.
Modou Fall concluded:
We are waiting for the government to do or say something on April 20, to mark two years since this law was voted in. But if that doesn’t happen, I’m ready, along with other NGOs, to start marching across Senegal to denounce the government’s failure to act.