World

This ‘Plastic Man’ Has a Cape and a Superhero’s Mission: Cleaning Up Senegal

DAKAR, Senegal — As the marathon runners stretched and took their places on the starting line, one man stood out, dressed, as he was, in plastic from head to toe.

A multicolored cape made entirely of plastic bags swept the sandy ground. A hat constructed out of plastic sunglasses was perched on his head.

But this man, Modou Fall, was not competing in the annual marathon held in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, each November. He was participating in a different kind of race: one to save the West African country from the scourge of plastic waste that clogged its waterways, marred its white beaches and constantly blew across its streets.

With the marathon drawing large crowds and a major media presence, he could not pass up the chance the race presented to promote his cause.

Waving the Senegalese flag and carrying a loudspeaker from which spilled songs cataloging the damage caused by plastic — “I like my country, I say no to plastic bags” — Mr. Fall swished in and around the runners in his long plastic cloak as the race began.

Those at the race who stopped him to ask for selfies fell into his well-laid and oft-used trap: He seized every opportunity to give them a gentle lecture about environmental issues.

After the last group of runners had left the starting area, Mr. Fall and his team of volunteers began to pick up the empty water bottles and plastic bags they had left behind.

For the foreign racers and tourists the marathon brought to Dakar, this might have been their first encounter with Mr. Fall, but for local residents, he’s a familiar presence known as “Plastic Man.”

Mr. Fall offering paper bags as an alternative to plastic at a market on the outskirts of Dakar.Credit…Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

He can often be seen dancing through the streets dressed in a self-designed and ever-evolving costume made entirely of plastic, mostly bags collected from across the city. Pinned to his chest is a sign that reads NO PLASTIC BAGS. It’s a fight he takes very seriously.

His costume is modeled after the “Kankurang”— an imposing traditional figure deeply rooted in Senegalese culture who stalks sacred forests and wears a shroud of woven grasses. The Kankurang is considered a protector against bad spirits, and in charge of teaching communal values.

“I behave like the Kankurang,” Mr. Fall said in a recent interview. “I am an educator, a defender and a protector of the environment.”

While plastic waste poses a severe environmental problem around the globe, recent studies have found Senegal, despite its relatively small size, to be among the top countries polluting the world’s oceans with plastic. This is in part because it struggles to manage its waste, like many poorer countries,and it has a large population living on the coast.

In an effort to reduce its share of pollution, the Senegalese government implemented a ban on some plastic products in 2020, but the country has had a hard time enforcing it. Senegal, with a population of about 17 million, is projected to produce more than 700,000 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste by 2025 if nothing is done, compared with about 337,000 metric tons in the United States.

A scene in Bargny, a coastal town in Senegal. Like many poorer countries, Senegal struggles to manage its plastic waste. Credit…Leo Correa/Associated Press

Mr. Fall, 48, has been fighting against plastic waste for most of his adult life. A tall, quietly charismatic former soldier, he first noticed plastic’s damaging effects in 1998 during his military service. He was stationed in rural eastern Senegal, home to many herding communities, where he saw their cows getting sick after consuming the fragments of plastic bags that littered the arid landscape.

The herders would slaughter their valuable animals before they inevitably died. This way, at least, eating their meat would not be haram, or forbidden by Islam.

After his military service, Mr. Fall sold T-shirts and life buoys in Dakar’s busy Sandaga market, where dozens of traders displayed all kind of goods, often packed in plastic. Plastic bags were cheap and plentiful, and shopkeepers would toss them into the street with abandon, unaware of how they could harm the environment.

For months, Mr. Fall tried to get his fellow shopkeepers to recognize the environmental threat posed by using so much plastic, and if they did use it, to dispose of it properly. But nobody listened. The market was a mess.

Fed up, one day he decided to try leading by example. He would clean up the entire market on his own.

Mr. Fall on the streets of Dakar during November’s marathon.Credit…Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

“It took me 13 days, but I did it,” he said.

The plastic eventually came back. But he’d succeeded in making some of the stall holders think twice.

And stopping the rising tide of plastic became Mr. Fall’s obsession. “If it continues like this, the lives of future generations are in jeopardy,” he said.

In 2006, Mr. Fall used his life savings, just over $500, to found his association, Senegal Propre, or Clean Senegal.

He planted dozens of trees across the city and held community meetings to persuade people to stop buying throwaway plastic. He organized cleaning and tire recycling campaigns in Dakar’s lively neighborhoods, his waste pickers dodging taxi drivers and street vendors as they went.

With the plastic waste they collected, Clean Senegal made bricks, paving stones and public benches. Old tires became couches that they sold for about $430 apiece — money that went toward more environmental efforts like planting trees at schools.

Other street vendors began to see the point of what he was doing, and joined in.

“I used to throw plastic bags or cups in the street after use because I wasn’t aware of the dangers it could cause,” said Cheikh Seck, 31, who sells sunglasses and watches in Pikine, his home suburb in Dakar. “Plastic waste is a global concern, and I am more than happy to contribute to the fight that Modou started.”

The plastic waste clogging up the ocean waters off Dakar has damaged fishing stocks, further decreasing the incomes of Senegalese fishermen already struggling against their waters being overfished. Plastic can also poison agricultural land.

Mr. Fall and volunteers picking up trash on a Dakar beach on World Cleanup Day, in 2018.Credit…Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Mr. Fall’s message seems to be catching on. At November’s marathon, the third one he has cleaned up after, some of the runners now knew his favorite slogan and yelled it to him as they passed: “No to plastic waste!”

Following much of the marathon route, Mr. Fall and his team of 10 young volunteers in green shirts and gloves fanned out for their cleanup operation.

They picked up water bottles outside Dakar’s pioneering Museum of Black Civilizations, which showcases one of Africa’s largest art collections. They collected hundreds of plastic bags on the leafy campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University. They found plastic cups in the thrumming city center, known as Plateau, home to the presidential palace and many embassies.

One of the neighborhoods they passed through was Medina, built by the French during the colonial period, and where Mr. Fall was born. After his father died when he was 4, Mr. Fall’s mother moved the family to the suburbs. As a single mother, she struggled to make ends meet running a restaurant, and Mr. Fall had to leave school after only six years of primary education to support the family by taking jobs in metalworking and house painting. After his mother died, he joined the army.

By midafternoon of the marathon day, Mr. Fall and his team were staggering under the weight of the plastic they had collected. A van drove up and they handed over hundreds of plastic bottles.

The team took a short break for lunch. But not Mr. Fall. He was still focused on his mission. There were five miles to go along the race route, and he set off, his plastic cape floating around him.

Those at the marathon often stopped Mr. Fall to ask for a selfie. He seized the chance to give those posing with him a gentle lecture about environmental issues.Credit…Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

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