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At the invitation of a local company called Ékolosys, our team visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo to determine how we can best support their efforts to build a market for rPET material. In this episode of Field Reports, Robert Goodwin shares his insights.

Plastic, Plastic, Plastic

“You can’t come to a beach these days without finding a lot of plastic.” – Robert Goodwin

This pristine Muanda beach, located about 550 km from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is no different. What’s surprising, though, is the amount of high-value PET plastic littering the environment here.

While PET is the most sought-after, high-value plastic globally, the DRC lacks the infrastructure to process it. Therefore, there’s little market for it. When there’s a strong market, people will begin to see it as a resource instead of trash to be discarded. At OceanCycle, our goal is to strengthen the existing recycling systems here to ensure this high-value PET ends up in profitable new products instead of the environment. 

To determine whether these plastics qualify as ocean-bound, we first needed to understand the Congo River’s role in delivering plastic pollution from Kinshasa to this coastline in Muanda.

Dumping & Burning

Our tour took us to Kinshasa where we inspected the gaps in the city’s recycling infrastructure. Among them, we found many.

When a country lacks proper recycling and trash collection infrastructure, one unfortunate outcome is that harmful and dangerous labor practices take root. In this case, we found illegal dump sites where people, including children, picked through heaps of hazardous material—often in sandals—to retrieve the high-value plastics.

All the remaining low-value plastics and foams get burned. This practice, which we found throughout Kinshasa at dump sites and in a canal leading into the Congo River, is incredibly dangerous. Not only is this plastic waste toxic, but the smoke from it can contribute to respiratory infections—sadly, a leading cause of death among young children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Children in DRC picking through trash at an illegal dumpsite

Child laborers at an illegal dumpsite in Kinshasa

burning plastics at a canal in Kinshasa

Burning plastics found in a Kinshasa canal

Our Theory of Change—applied to the DRC

We focus on high-value PET plastics to build models of recycling that allow us to leverage the infrastructure to buy down the cost of materials that otherwise wouldn’t get collected. The good news is that the DRC uses PET material in much of its packaging. We need to reframe how people see this plastic to divert it before it ends up in dumpsites, canals, and eventually the ocean. 

One way we can do this is by helping to connect the DRC with processors in nearby countries—thereby creating a market for their plastics. Working together with local recyclers such as Ékolosys, we can strengthen their collection efforts to generate demand for plastics and disincentivize these harmful practices.

It works like this: putting more value at the household level stops people from disposing of their high-value plastics. They keep it and re-use it or sell it to their neighbor who’s doing a plastic run. This way, there’s nothing of value in the illegal dumpsites and little incentive to pick through it—that leads to fewer kids in dumpsites searching for PET. 

Eventually, the DRC will be ready for OceanCycle Certification. Learn more about what it takes to earn our mark.

OceanCycle + Ekolysis meeting in the DRC

Robert Goodwin meets with the team at Ékolosys. Together, they’re getting to the source of the ocean plastic problem in the DRC and working to strengthen the market for rPET material.

Jemmal, Tunisia: Our team speaks with the owners of the collection center
“OceanCycle has been incredibly helpful in developing our approach to waste management and recycling in the DRC. They are working with us under difficult circumstances to truly appreciate our challenges and understand the needs of the people. With insight founded on proven operations in many regions of the world, they provided us with a blueprint on how to develop our local recycling operations and organize community collections. Above all, the biggest takeaway I have personally gained from the team at OceanCycle is the utmost respect for their passion and drive to ensure ethical and inclusive standards are at the forefront of everything they do or are associated with. Because of their help, we truly believe we have a better opportunity to grow our business in a way that both improves lives and the environment.” – David Richardson, Ékolosys