While in Senegal, I took a course titled Environment and Development in the Sahel. This course was problematic due to its instruction but it it did gift me the invaluable opportunity to visit Mbeubeuse Landfill. Mbeubeuss lies on the edge of Dakar, Senegal and is the largest landfill in West Africa, sprawling across almost 230 acres. There are nearly 2,000 people who work every day on the trash mound, with 400 of those people living there. All these people work to sort the nearly 1300 tonnes of waste that come in to the landfill on a daily basis.
Having lived in Tanzania and visited waste dumps in the Unites States, I thought that I was well prepared for Mbeubeuss. This would not prove to be the case. The first thing to great you is a profound smell. Long before one arrives at its gates, they are greeted by the unmistakable smell of decomposing and burning garbage. On entering the dump, the full scale of is not fully visible. In fact, the first section of the dump seems to be a relatively well-organized recycling operation. Goods were sorted into clear piles and then were packaged for sale to the Chinese recycling centers located in the landfill.
It was here that we began to understand what materials held value and why. PED plastic is highly sought after by the Chinese and is one of the more valuable goods found at Mbeubeuss. PHED is a high density plastic that is valued because it is relatively easy to recycle. Plastic must be separated though and items such as caps, which are often a different type of plastic, diminish the value of the good. Tires also are a valuable commodity within Mbeubeuss. Though it is illegal to burn tires, workers often do so nonetheless due to the high value of the 30kg of iron that are found inside of them. Further, iron cook wear can be recycled. In order for it to be accepted by the Chinse it needs to have no paint on it. To strip the paint off of the iron, workers burn it. This burning produces thick black smoke. Aluminum is another good that is valued for its recyclability. Workers leave the cans in the middle of the road and the truck drive over them. This flattens the cans which allows for easier transport.
What was discussed up until this point is legal, however illegal activity also seemed to pose a major problem at the dump. Tiring burning, though illegal, seemed to be relatively common and we were informed the current fire at the dump was lit the prior evening by someone illegally burning tires. Further, we found a large load of IV equipment, biomedical waste that is illegal at Mbeubeuss. Though it is illegal, we were informed that often private clinics higher truckers to dump it, because this is cheaper than the incineration that they are legally mandated to do. Further, plastic bags appeared everywhere in the landfill. This seemed illogical to me given that they are illegal in Senegal.
The most striking thing at Mbeubeuss was the air quality. When entering the dump, visibility decreased dramatically, and the smoke was apparent in the air. It was not until we entered further in to the dump that we discovered the source. When we visited, the working face of the landfill was on fire. This reduced visibility to not more than a few feet and produced air that was painful to breath, even with a mask on. We learned that this fire was the result of the illegal burning of tires, but often fires start themselves deep in the trash. These fires are the result trash decomposition and can burn for up to 5 years.
Beyond the trash though, I was struck by the people and animals that live at Mbeubeuss. We saw a large herd of cattle feeding off of the trash heap. These animals were then sold as meat in the neighboring community. Further, we witnessed scores of people scrambling to be in the right spot behind the garbage truck, so that they could be the first ones to the trash. In the entire visit, I only saw one face mask, something that is painful to understand, given how bad the air quality is in the landfill. Further, personal protection equipment was nonexistent, with some of the workers only wearing flips flops. This spoke to the extreme economic at Mbeubeuss. Finally, child labor seemed to be very prevalent, with many small children working in various areas throughout the dump.
The scale of the problems in Mbeubeuss were beyond comprehension. It remains on of the most striking moments of my entire trip. Though many memories will fail the scale of the environmental and social catastrophe that is Mbeubeuss never will.