On a beach in Senegal with so much plastic trash that much of the sand is covered, one man is trying to raise awareness about the dangers of plastics — by wearing many of the bags, cups and other junk that might just as soon be part of trash piles.
Environmental activist Modou Fall, whom many simply call “Plastic Man,” wears his uniform — “it’s not a costume,” he emphasizes — while telling anybody who will listen about the problems of plastics. As he walks, strands and chunks of plastic dangle from his arms and legs, rustling in the wind while some drags on the ground. On Fall’s chest, poking out from the plastics, is a sign in French that says, “No to plastic bags.”
A former soldier, the 49-year-old father of three children says that plastic pollution, often excessive from people who chuck things wherever without a second thought, is an ecological disaster.
“It’s a poison for health, for the ocean, for the population,” he said.
On this recent day, Fall traverses Yarakh Beach in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. But it could have been any number of other places: Fall has taken his message national, visiting cities across the West African country for years. In 2011, during World Environment Day, he started as Plastic Man.
He founded an environmental association, called Clean Senegal, that raises awareness via education campaigns and encourages reuse and recycling.
As he walks, kids on the beach shout: “Kankurang! Kankurang is coming!”
Part of the cultural heritage of Senegal and Gambia, the Kankurang symbolizes the spirit that provides order and justice, and is considered a protector against evil.
On this day, this Kankurang is telling the kids about plastic pollution and urging them to respect the environment.
“Climate change is real, so we have to try to change our way of life, to change our behavior to better adapt to it,” he told them.
Fall says some people see him as crazy, but often those people don’t know the extent of the plastics problem and can change their views when he is given a chance to explain.
These days, he says his wife and children, who sometimes watch him appear on local television to share his message, understand and respect his work, support he didn’t have in the beginning.
In 2020, Senegal passed a law that banned some plastic products. But if the mountains of plastic garbage on this beach are any indication, the country is struggling with enforcement.
Senegal is far from alone. Each year, the world produces a staggering amount of plastics, which sometimes end up clogging waterways, hurting land and sea animals that may ingest the materials and creating myriad eyesores. That pollution is in addition to all the greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of global warming, that are the result of producing plastics. And things don’t appear to be moving in the right direction: Global plastic production is expected to more than quadruple by 2050, according to the United Nations Environment Programme and GRID-Arendal in Norway.
So, as world leaders gather this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the U.N. climate summit known as COP27, Fall hopes his message about plastics resonates.
“Leaders of Africa need to wake up and work together to fight against this phenomenon,” he said.