Ambassador Spotlight: Zero Waste Senegal Interview with Charlotte Spinazze

We're happy to share the stories and positive work of our Ambassadors in their own words. Our Be Zero Ambassadors bring life to the Be Zero Mission by sharing and inspiring ways to live simple and low-waste lifestyles. Our Ambassador, Brenna, shares her conversation on zero waste with a women she met in Dakar, Senegal. Enjoy!

As a new member of the Be Zero Ambassador program here in Dakar, Senegal, I was really excited to get to sit down and talk to Charlotte Spinazze who also lives in Senegal. A year ago, Charlotte embarked on an endeavour to take her family as close to zero waste as possible. Though I still certainly have far to go in reducing my own waste, I have done quite a bit of reading on alternatives and was really pleasantly surprised to realize that a few of the simple alternatives that Charlotte had found here were things I had never thought of and were sitting right under my nose! 

For a bit of context, Dakar has a population of about 2.5 million and is the capital of Senegal, and is found on the Atlantic coast in West Africa.

Though there is a lot of work going on in waste management in Senegal, there is still a lot of progress to be made in terms of safe landfilling, consistent collection and there is very little formal recycling. I’m also excited to highlight a few local companies throughout this post, if you are ever visiting or working in Senegal, be sure to check them out! Through the article you’ll find the notes in italics are further information about some of the things which are referenced in the discussion, which may not be as obvious or familiar to those without experience with life in Dakar.

Charlotte has recently started the website Experience Zero Waste; the Facebook page Experience Zero Waste and a Zero Waste Senegal Facebook group

But let’s get down to business and on to the interview where Charlotte graciously invited me into her home to chat and show me a few of the zero waste alternatives she and her family have been using. 

Charlotte: These are a few things that I showcase when I do small events to raise awareness on zero waste lifestyle. For example, this is a cup that is sold here (i.e. in Dakar, Senegal).

Brenna: That is called the Ruby Cup?

Charlotte: Yes, I try to find and advertise as many local and locally sold products and alternatives as I can, which makes sense when you want to reduce your ecological footprint. These are cloth pads that are made here by ApiAfrique. They also sell cloth diapers, and reusable cotton rounds. 
Here is a local dry toothpaste, free of packaging, made here by Nyara. Another difference with a conventional and industrial toothpaste is that it is completely safe for your health. They also sell this deodorant, locally-made, in a reusable glass bottle. 

Brenna: And are they sold at the Lou Bess farmers market? This is a month market that runs the first Saturday of every month, from October to May in Dakar. It is really great!

Charlotte: Yes. Then I wanted to show you some bags that were made here out of wax. These can be used as produce bags, for shopping, or to store food at home for instance. 
Here are a few products that I brought back from France. When I don’t find an alternative that works for me here, I try to find it when I go back to France. For instance, this is solid shampoo, this is a bamboo toothbrush, and this is something for cleaning your ear, made out of bamboo as well.
This is a laundry soap that I made with Savon de Marseille, baking soda and white vinegar. You can also make it with a good quality local soap. 

Brenna: So that’s a bar soap that you grate?

Charlotte: Yes exactly. I also wanted to show a few books that really helped us reduce our waste. I have Bea Johnson’s, Zero Waste Home. She tries to eliminate every single waste from her life, which may be a bit difficult for people unfamiliar with zero waste. 

This one is my favorite, Famille presque Zéro Déchet: Ze guide, by Jeremy Pichon and Benedicte Moret. I think they present feasible alternatives for everyone. In this book they explain very well how you can reduce your whole ecological footprint by reducing your waste. This makes a lot of sense to me. For instance they also discuss how to reduce your impact when you travel, or the impact of your savings on your bank account. 

I started reading, Zero Waste Home, just before having my son in December 2015. When I had my baby, I had to adapt to so many new things, it was difficult to change our habits then. But quite rapidly, we realized we could do a lot to reduce our footprint and decided to be as zero waste as we could by the end of 2016. My partner did not find it very easy at the beginning, but step by step, we changed a lot of things. Since then, we were really able to reduce the majority of the waste we were producing. 

We really changed the way we buy our food here. We used to buy vegetables from the market but all the rest mainly came from the Casino supermarket. We found alternatives for almost every product we used to buy there, and buy everything mostly from small business owners now. 

Brenna: I am curious about what you have found here in terms of buying in bulk and things like filling your own containers here?

Charlotte: At the market you can buy a lot of products in bulk, like vegetables, fruits, rice, grains, sugar, tea, bissap, etc. And when you buy fish or meat you can also buy in bulk, if you bring your own reusable container. [Bissap is the name used in France and West Africa for Hibiscus, popular here in juice and several traditional Senegalese recipes].

Brenna: I didn’t know they sold that many things, and you can buy any amount you want?

Charlotte: Yes, many products at the local market are sold in bulk and you can buy the amount you want. What we changed mostly was really trying to buy more local food. There is a farmers market where you can buy local vegetables, ASD Market (which stands for Healthy and Sustainable Agriculture, it is a market that sells produce in three different neighborhoods in Dakar on three different days of the week). The vegetables are grown according to agro-ecological practices. We also eat more fresh vegetables than we used to. We buy organic vegetables, dairy, chicken, eggs and jams from another local farmer who tries to reduce packaging. For instance, he uses reusable glass containers for many products. 

We also tried to adapt our meals to what is available. Instead of going with a recipe and trying to find all the ingredients, now we try to see what is available locally and then go from there.

Brenna: It seems like it simplifies things in a lot of ways especially here if you are trying to find a lot of things in a recipe you might end up going to six stores. Even at box grocery stores in Dakar, there is sometimes a shortage of stock of a product like black beans or tortillas and they don’t come back in stock for weeks at a time. That can make meal planning a bit complicated as it is hard to be able to predict week-to-week what you will be able to find and where. 

Charlotte: It also makes more sense in the end. One of the things my partner says is that we are really eating better. We eat simpler meals, but they are definitely better thanks to the quality of the products. We don’t eat canned food anymore, which contains sugar for instance. This change in habits has greatly improved the taste of our meals! And we find that our health has improved a lot too! 

One of the first things that we changed at home, is using only baking soda, white vinegar, black soap and Savon de Marseille for cleaning our place. I began to do this for my baby, because babies are running around and in constant contact with the floor, so it is important that cleaning products are safe for them. It also helped reducing a lot of packaging. 

Brenna: So you’ve mentioned a lot of things that were easy to switch out and find here, but has there been anything that you have really struggled to find here or anything other than the bamboo toothbrush?  

Charlotte: So one of the first things we did was try to find reusable alternatives to all the throw-away products we were using. I looked for reusable diapers, but there was not a large choice for those here. Now it’s easier to find good reusable diapers thanks to ApiAfrique. 
Also, while finding organic vegetables and fruits here is possible, other organic products are much more difficult to find, and are mostly imported from Europe or the USA. But that is not very satisfying in terms of ecological footprint and I would rather support local businesses.  There are also a few products for which I haven’t found a safe, local and zero waste alternative, like shampoo. I am encouraging local businesses to think about it! 

Brenna: And you have recently started your website and the Facebook page. Have you had a lot of traction with these? Have you had interest from the Expat community and the Senegalese community? 

Charlotte: Ever since we started reducing waste, I wanted to show people that it is actually possible to reduce waste at home in Senegal. A lot of people think, “Hey, I can’t recycle so there is nothing I can do”, but actually, it’s far from the truth. Actually some things might even be easier here. You can easily give your food waste to animals for instance. There are many animals in Dakar, like chickens, goats, cats and dogs, who can eat food scraps.  Also, there are deposits on some containers, so you get the money back when you bring back the container. They are trying to reintroduce this in a lot of Western countries because it is more ecological than recycling, and it still exists here.

Brenna: Is this particularly for glass bottles?

Charlotte: Yes for glass bottles, if you buy soda or beer for instance. Also for water, if you buy the big 19 L bottles. As for the community, I received a lot of inquiries from people interested in learning more about zero waste. A lot of people want to meet and I was asked to do a few presentations about this lifestyle. For instance, I have done a presentation for a local network which is more of the expat community.

I was also asked to do a presentation for the Sensecampus at the IAM Dakar (Institution Africain de management/African Institute for Management). They support social entrepreneurs in Senegal. So I did a presentation for students there. The students, from Senegal, were very interested in the subject, so they decided to continue to hold events on zero waste on a regular basis. The students were interested to hear about waste in Senegal and in particular about the landfill here (Mbeubeuss is one of the largest in Africa). 

Many Senegalese and expatriates are happy to learn about alternatives to reduce their ecological footprint. It’s not the way that we learned how to consume so there is a need to change our habits. A lot of people here are already concerned about waste as it is definitely a problem – we can all see lots of trash in the streets and the country. Now we are actually trying to have an actual Zero Waste Senegal group of people that meet regularly. We have met once and plan to meet every two months. 

Brenna: So it was really reading this book (Zero Waste Home) that led you towards the zero waste path or were there some other personal influences that pushed you towards this?

Charlotte: While I was pregnant I had to stop working, and this gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted for my baby, about our way of life and its ecological impact. When you are pregnant, a lot of people tell you that you need to buy a great number of things, and my partner and I did not want to consume that much because we were going to have a baby. Here it feels a bit like you are away from it as there aren’t as many shops to go to compared to Europe, but when you are pregnant it seems like the consumption society comes back to you. For us it was too much and we wanted to get what was really necessary. 

I think having a baby makes you really think what you want to show him and how you want to consume. So it was really an overall thinking about overconsumption and how you can do things differently. It was also a health concern with hormone disruptors found in most plastics for instance.

People here already reuse a lot more than we do in Western Countries and they produce far less waste compared to us. 

So now we are really trying to build a community here. There are more than 300 people in the group and people can propose alternatives or ask questions and people are exchanging more and more. I think that it is really important to think about reducing waste here in Senegal, because the country is developing rapidly, and as lifestyles are improving it also means people will produce more waste that will need to be dealt with. 

That’s all for our interview! It was really great to hear about potential alternatives, and I have definitely at times felt like, “Hey, I can’t recycle so there is nothing I can do.” Though a lot of the specific examples are products found here in Dakar, it is also relevant to many areas of the western world as well, particularly smaller towns that may not have easy access to bulk items or recycling.

I am from Halifax and there is a really great municipal compost program there, so when I moved to Montreal I really struggled with feeling like I was making a lot of food waste and there was little I could do about it living in an apartment. However, by keeping a perspective on your situation and focusing on the things you can control and not those you can’t, there will always be changes that can be made! Although I am leaving Dakar to head back to Canada, as I am eager to continue to learn from this community! 

For more information about the companies as well as the Lou Bess market, mentioned in this interview are easily found on their Facebook pages.