Senegal: the great nuisance of plastic water bags

Senegal: the great nuisance of plastic water bags

Moussa Ndoye, 28, drinks two plastic bags of fresh water in one go and throws them on a beach in Dakar. “Here is our trash”he laughs in front of his approving friends sitting around tea in the shade of a large canoe.

Countless people do this negligent gesture every day.

Empty transparent pocket-sized bags are lying around everywhere, especially in these months when the temperature does not drop below 30 degrees. On Hann beach, they mingle with a mass of waste drained by the foul-smelling waters of faulty pipes. They litter the surroundings of stadiums and the foot of construction sites. Nobody pays attention to it.

“There’s a lot of it on the beach, it’s part of the plastic waste we see the most,” notes Pape Diop, head of an environmental protection association. Practical, available everywhere in shops or from street sellers, cheaper than bottles, they are part of everyday life, even in the large corporation of fishermen.

Before, “To drink, fishermen took cans out to sea. Now they use water bags, then throw them away. This waste all ends up here (on the beach) because the sea rejects it,” reports Mr. Diop.

These sachets are a common consumer product in a number of other African countries, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso. They are banned in Kenya or Rwanda, under bans on single-use plastics dating back to 2017 and 2019.

Senegal itself passed a similar law in 2020. It remained a dead letter regarding water sachets. Uganda is experiencing a similar situation.

Covid effect

Consequence: quantities of sachets end up in the street, vegetating on the concrete of Dakar or disappearing in the sand omnipresent even in the city. Public trash cans are non-existent. Cleaning leaves something to be desired, recycling is in its infancy. More than 250,000 tonnes of plastic are thrown away each year, only nearly 30,000 are recycled, said a report from the Ministry of Urban Planning in 2022.

Various AFP interlocutors underline the harmfulness of these sachets, which take 400 years to decompose into microplastics, according to Professor Adams Tidjanis, environmentalist.

Not only do they pollute the water, but they obstruct drains and contribute to the flooding that afflicts Dakar residents every year. It is common for them to be burned, which releases toxic releases.

The law passed in 2020 supplemented 2015 legislation that banned the sale of thin plastic bags but was barely enforced. The new text targeted single-use and disposable plastics, such as straws for drinks or packaging in commerce.

The authorities almost immediately granted exceptions, of which water sachets were one. Senegal was in the middle of Covid-19, the restrictions severely affected the population, a large part of whom lived from day to day. The government had decided to relax the application.

Khadidjatou Dramé, responsible for legal affairs at the Ministry of the Environment, recognizes that “our socio-economic realities do not allow us to move towards their total ban”.

Manufacturing, in artisanal or industrial units, and distribution employ thousands of people.

Questionable hygiene

“Si Belle”, “Mame Dior”, “Ci Weul”, “Kontoma”… Dozens of brands are competing for the market. They are sold individually or in batches of 30. The 400 ml sachet costs 50 CFA francs (0.076 euros) and the 250 ml sachet costs 25 CFA francs (0.038 euros).

Amadou Diallo, aged around sixty, launched the “Débèya” brand in 2017. In his small unit in the Dakar suburbs, tap water passes through three blue tubes which contain cotton, thread and coal. The liquid thus “filtered” and “purified”, according to Mr. Diallo, is found in two superimposed tanks of 1,000 liters each which themselves supply a packaging machine. The device fills the bags, seals them then places them in a blue basin. Mr. Diallo says he produces 300 to 400 packs per day during hot weather.

All brands are supposed to have authorization issued by the authorities. Some have a better reputation than others. A number of customers say they have already wondered about the source of the water they were ingesting.

Many manufacturing units fail to follow hygiene rules, says Lieutenant Mbaye Loum, responsible for the National Hygiene Service.

This does not slow down production, on the contrary.

Getting started doesn’t cost much. A cubic meter of tap water costs 202 CFA francs. “Imagine: they filter this tap water, sometimes not even, put it in bags and resell it, it’s a windfall for them”said a manager of the water exploitation and distribution company Sen’Eau on condition of anonymity.

“We can’t even count” those who operate clandestinely, says Mr. Diallo, the manufacturer; “They set up their factory in closed houses and you can’t even imagine that water is produced (inside).”