Recently, my environment class visited Mbeubeuss, roughly 114 hectares in size, and the largest waste dump in West Africa. It is located in Malike, about 30 minutes outside of Dakar. The dump takes in the majority of Senegal’s waste, with hundreds of trucks dumping trash there each day. There are over 2,500 people who informally work in Mbeubeuss and over 400 people actually living in the dump.
Those working in the dump spend their days sorting through the trash in search of recyclable materials. For example, aluminum cans are collected and flattened to then be recycled. Glass bottles are also collected, sometimes to be reused or melted down again. Some workers also engage in illegal activity, like burning tires to extract the iron found inside. Roughly 15 kilos of iron can be found in one tire, but in order to get to the iron, the tires must be burned, emitting harmful smoke and contributing to air pollution. It is therefore illegal for people to burn the tires, however people do it in secret, coming at night and having a look-out to watch for officials.
After separating out the recyclables, workers then sell the materials to recycling plants. There are two Chinese plants located within the dump and buy the recyclable materials. However, because these Chinese companies have a monopoly on the recycling, they are able to pay very low rates, exploiting the workers. During our visit, the president of the dump said that he suspected that the government had made a special deal or accepted a bribe from China in order to corner the market. He recalled that Indian companies used to buy the recyclable from Mbeubeuss and they paid much higher prices, but now there are only Chinese companies.
Because the dump is located right by a lake, the waste easily enters the groundwater, creating negative health impacts for those living in the area and using the water. It was astounding to see how much the waste had built up over time, creating mountains of trash overlooking the bodies of water below. Without proper water and sanitation regulations, the dump is having significant effects on the population of Malike. Those working in the dump face potentially extreme health issues. The air is filled with smoke of burning chemicals and trash, which workers inhale daily, usually without any sort of mask. They are also rooting through the trash, exposing themselves to harmful materials with the possibility of disease and infection. There are also animals feeding on the trash. While we were there, we saw lots of birds picking through the trash and cows shuffling around searching for food. These cows will later be slaughtered and sold as meat, creating health problems for whoever ingests the meat.
Our field trip to Mbeubeuss was very astonishing and eye opening in terms of where Senegal’s waste ends up and its impacts. The sheer volume of waste was overwhelming and demonstrated the extreme consumption and consumer habits in Senegal, often with cheap, single-use products. Especially prominent in the dump was plastic. While some of the plastic can be recycled, the thinner plastic, like that used in plastic bags, cannot be recycled and adds to the mountain of waste building up at Mbeubeuss. I was also surprised by the number of fires constantly burning at the dump. Some of these fires were intentionally started to burn waste, while some fires start through chemical reactions within the plastic as it builds up and is heated by the sun and the pressure of the waste. These fires produce toxic smoke which is then inhaled by the thousands of people working in the dump, along with the animals feeding there. The environmental conditions under which people work in the dump was very intense and leads me to believe that there are significant health issues for the workers and those living around Mbeubeuss or drinking water contaminated by the waste. Overall, this visit to Mbeubeuss demonstrated the mis-management of waste in Senegal and the negative effects of the over-consumption that is present throughout the world today.