Ambassador Spotlight: Creating Less Waste In Senegal

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. In this post, Brenna Walsh, shares her story of living with less waste while in Dakar, Senegal! 

I am new to the Ambassador Program and wanted to use my first few posts to take the opportunity to discuss the experience of trying to live creating less waste in Dakar, Senegal. I have been living here for almost five months now and am actually doing an internship with a local NGO who focuses on implementation of sustainable waste management systems in Senegal. This is my first opportunity to work in development as well as in waste management, and my first experience living in a developing country so needless to say I am learning A LOT! I am trying to soak as much in as I can in and pass some of my observations along in my last month here. After this I will be moving back to Montreal, Canada and continuing to try to purposefully make less waste.  

Through my job I have gotten to learn a lot about the quality of door to door waste pick up services, persistence of wild dump sites in the country and the different initiatives, both grassroots and government led to valorize waste (including recycling, repurposing, composting etc.).

However, on a more personal level I have noticed quite a few differences in how waste in perceived which brings about some different discussion points when considering different common topics that come up in creating less waste. While I have been here I have been trying to be conscious of how much waste I have been creating, but keeping in mind some limitations. The first one is that I live in a house family- who also make me great Senegalese food every day- and the second being the fact that I am often at the edge of my comfort zone with the grand adventure that is living in Dakar, so I have been trying not to give myself too much of a hard time when some creature comforts that happen to come in more packaging than I would usually like.   
One of the really great things about living in Dakar is that the best fresh produce which is available is sold package free on street corners all over the city.

I live in a neighbourhood called Mermoz, and there are 5+ fruit vendors and 5+ vegetable vendors within a ten minute walk of where I live. However, once you get to the stage of buying the produce, one of the large (at least to me) conundrums of life in Senegal is literally presented. Even if you are just buying a single apple, the produce will be put in a small plastic bag, which is even as single use bags come, really bad quality. I was actually warned about these bags before my arrival (weird discussion point, I know, but they are omnipresent). However, I do always try to bring my own bag for produce and the vendors are usually quite happy to put the items in my bag, plastic free. Though there is a bit of a language barrier as the common language I have with most people here is French, almost always both my and their second language I am always buoyed by even the few sentence exchanges I have with people when they recognize that I’m trying to not take a bag as it's better for the environment.

There are many other items which are available both packaging free and which support the local economy, which is always a plus such as abundant bar soaps and homemade jams and chutneys. Re-use of glass jars in also prevalent, vendors selling fresh roasted nuts in a repurposed wine bottle are almost as frequent as those selling produce. Staples like rice are also often sold in large quantities, on the last trip I was on for work we were tasked with buying two 50 kilo bags of the local rice from the community we were visiting for the family I am living with. Even after they are used to store this large quantity of rice the bags are often reused, or used as a garbage bag. So, there are quite a few items which are available either packaging free or with minimal packaging. 
However, there is also a significant presence of packaged items here which are intended for single use, and quite a few of the common items are not typically sold in single use/single serving quantities. Coffee is available in one of two ways. If you buy it on the go, you can buy coffee on the street which comes in espresso sized plastic cups.

Not great for reuse and are kind of thought of as small and inconsequential and are therefore often tossed on the side of the road. The most common option if you are making coffee at home is a single serving sachet of instant coffee. I have these quite regularly and they kind of give me nightmares about coffee pods, but I will not get off on this tangent. Another example that comes to mind is one day that I was making fruit juice with the house family that I live in. We had added the juice, some sugar from a bulk size bag and a couple shakes of vanilla extract, so seemed good to me. However, the last ingredient was some sort of vanilla sugar, which came in tiny packs the size of a salt sachet you may see in a fast food restaurant.

We opened ten of these to put in the juice. Needless to say I was quite confused. Since then, I have noticed quite a few items available in very small packages (I think I saw sachets of baking soda the other day, but I am not quite sure) in the grocery and corner stores. I guess it should not be surprising that the items that come packaged for single serving or as single use differ from those that are seen as more standard at home. It does seem that both here and in Canada, the use of single use or single serving size packaged items are mainstream due to convenience and habit. 

I have been trying to be conscious of my own consumption while here and though I do think the guy who runs the frozen yogurt shop in my neighbourhood may think I am crazy as I keep showing up with their branded plastic container to put my froyo in (it is on to its fourth use now!) Formal recycling is very limited here, and it is surprising how quickly guilt builds up when throwing out plastic containers. I haven’t bought any containers for snacks however and now have a small collection of containers that I have saved from the trash for bringing trail mix, crackers and carrots on day trips etc.  I think that there is potential for momentum to reduce the amount of waste which is being produced at the level of the individual here.

A lot of the habits relating to the convenience of single use which I present in Canada are present here as well and like there a lot of single use items could be swapped out fairly simply. Another aspect that could be interesting to bring into focus could be how to highlight the value of things like buying a single 50 kilo bag of rice instead of buying a plastic sack of rice one kilo at a time, which is the way most families in Canada currently purchase this type of commodity. This habit has been lost in development and it would be really interesting to figure out how to sustain this in this society where this practice is still common.