DAKAR, Senegal – At a market in Senegal's capital, the sandy paths are strewn with them. They blow around like feathers in Dakar's coastal breezes, piling up alongside buildings on city streets and clogging canals.
Thin plastic shopping bags, and pieces of them, litter this seaside capital and the nearby waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The number of discarded bags is staggering — a total of 5 million in Senegal, according to Environment Minister Abdoulaye Balde.
Now, the government is set to impose a ban, joining a global shift against the bags.
Street vendors wonder how they will do business without them. Dauda Ndiaye sells hundreds of plastic bags a day to other vendors, who sell fish, meat and other goods in the Ouakam neighborhood. For 500 francs (about $1), a customer can buy a packet of 100.
Banning the bags will "be a huge problem because all the vendors here use plastic to sell nuts, glass, meat, fruit and vegetables," said Ndiaye, a 23-year-old father of three. "If they are going to ban plastic, I won't be able to feed my family."
Another merchant, Ami Ndiaye, says she must keep using plastic to protect the charcoal she sells wrapped in small paper rolls which are then neatly piled into plastic.
"The problem isn't the plastic, it's the people," she said. "People must put it in the garbage and not on the streets so animals don't eat it and it doesn't pile up."
But Pascaline Ouedraego fully supports the measures, saying she worries about chemicals from the sacks getting into the food she buys. She moved to Senegal four years ago from Burkina Faso, which adopted a ban.
"The problem is no one understands what else to use, so it's been difficult," she said of Burkina Faso. "Little by little people can learn" to use safer alternative products, like paper and reusable bags.
In April, Senegal's National Assembly unanimously prohibited the production, importation, possession and use of the black bags that are so thin they can barely hold several cans of soda without falling apart and are usually discarded after one use. Implementation was planned for six months later.
In 2013, Mauritania imposed a ban, saying an estimated 70 percent of cattle and sheep in the capital were dying from ingesting plastic bags, according to the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute. Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Malawi are also among countries that have adopted or announced bans, according to the institute. Botswana and South Africa require a certain thickness of plastic bags, so they can be reused, and added levies saw a reduction in use, the institute added.
Rwanda banned the use of non-biodegradable plastic at a certain thickness in 2008 and carries out strict enforcement, including taking plastic off of luggage and seizing bags that don't meet specifications from visitors flying into the country.
In France this week, the National Assembly approved a bill that would ban plastic bags in all supermarkets and stores on January 1, 2016. And in April, The European Parliament approved rules to clamp down on the use of flimsy plastic bags, removing the last major hurdle to pass the legislation. It would require member states to reduce the use by some 80 percent by 2025.
The U.S. is seeing most bans imposed on local levels, by cities and counties.
Senegal's government hasn't announced details on how it will enact the bans, but said alternative solutions to the flimsy bags will have to be found. The discarded bags are an eyesore, shredded and hanging in trees and beautiful flowering branches. And they are a danger to fish, sheep and other animals that may ingest the bags and their toxins.
Modou Fall, who has dedicated himself to getting Senegalese to stop littering and quit using plastic bags, is optimistic about the ban, though he notes that garbage bins are needed around the city so people can properly dispose of trash.
Clad in more than 7,000 thin plastic sacks and a dome cap made from 100 plastic cups stapled together, the tall 42-year-old is a familiar, although bizarre, sight in Dakar. Wearing the plastic items that he gathered from the streets and cleaned, he looks like a creature that emerged from a swamp, the litter clinging to him.
He walks 15 kilometers (9 miles) every day, urging people over a microphone and speaker to stop littering and to switch to paper bags that he sells. He pushes a cart with two Senegalese flags protruding from it and speakers playing military music.
Fall buys bulk paper sacks from a factory and sells about 1,000 per day, including to a pharmacy and other stores.
"Plastic sticks around for hundreds of years, beyond anyone's lifetime," he said. "We must think of future generations."