It took a wave of plastic-strewn water crashing over Babacar Thiaw as he paddled out to sea for him to decide to act.
By the time his surfboard had carried him back to Virage beach on the north shore of Senegal’s capital, Dakar, Thiaw had a plan that would make use of the surfing community he had built there.
Within a year he had turned Copacabana Surf Village, which he founded with his father two decades ago, into a hub for young Senegalese eco-surfers, organising beach cleans, environmental courses for children and Senegal’s first zero-waste restaurant. The cafe has signs up explaining to customers why they don’t use plastic bottles, straws, coffee pods or sugar sachets. In a country that produces an estimated 350,000 tonnes of plastic waste, most of which is not properly collected, Thiaw has found the work challenging, but is convinced it is crucial for a city where people are closely tied to the sea.
“We live this every day, we see it every day – in the sea, on the shore. Sometimes, you go to the sea and it feels like all the country’s trash has come together there. I love it here, but if I’m condemned to live with all of this rubbish for ever, that would be sad,” says Thiaw.
“This is our recreation area, but also look at how many people live off it – people like me, fishers, the guys selling sunglasses on the beach. It’s a vital economy. If we lose it, like we did during Covid, when everything was closed, it will be so hard on the people who work here.”
Thiaw grew up in a fishing village near the beach, and the Copacabana Surf Village’s foundations were laid by his fisher father, who after a day’s work would head to Virage beach to surf on a wooden board. They were able to turn their spot on the beach into a business by renting out surfboards and later offering lessons with the help of visiting overseas surfers.
It is now a popular surfing location, enticing tourists and expats. It’s also a place where Thiaw teaches young Senegalese how to surf and to care for the ocean they spend so much time in.
“When we come to the water to surf, we can see how much plastic is ending up here and it disturbs us,” says Mohammed Sarr, 17, who Thiaw taught to surf.
Sarr says he has become more conscious about how he uses and disposes of plastic because he and his family, who live near the sea, are directly affected.
“Without the beach we can’t have our sport. If we don’t care for the beach, we can’t surf. When we throw plastic into sea we’re destroying our own environment and also harming the fish that we eat.”
Senegal has passed laws banning bags and other plastic products, most recently in 2020, but has struggled to enforce them, evident from the amount of waste littering the city’s beaches.
Momar Baby, from the campaign group Zero Waste Senegal, which worked with Thiaw to pilot the zero-waste restaurant, says 36 other food outlets are now reducing their plastic use. He says this has prevented 29,000 bottles and 81,000 straws ending up on rubbish tips.
Baby says that a social media campaign, started by his organisationin 2016 to raise awareness about plastic waste, has snowballed into a growing movement that, as well as restaurants, involves schools and businesses, and has spread beyond Dakar.
“The Senegalese population often consume fish, and the microplastics consumed by the latter end up on our plates and therefore we find ourselves eating plastic. Beaches and seas are being turned into landfills,” he says.
“The public is becoming more aware of the waste issue. We talk about it every day. In addition to the activities of our association, we see other movements that try to bring their touch to better waste management.”
Thiaw says there was initially hesitancy about the plastic-free initiative, with people questioning whether it was hygienic for him to be serving water in reusable glass bottles. But he stresses that everyone needs to understand the requirement to change.
“What I always say to people is, even if you are rich but your environment sucks, your kid, your family and your friends are exposed to that environment. So, your wealth doesn’t mean anything,” he says.