Kinshasa’s plastic waste menace, recycling policy yet to take shape

Saturday June 01 2024
drc plastic

Plastic waste floats near the entrance to the Ruzizi I hydroelectric plant in Bukavu, eastern DRC. PHOTO | REUTERS


Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a plastic problem. Yet that artificial problem is causing natural calamities.

Everywhere you go, plastic bottles and other household waste liter. The city of more than 15 million inhabitants, according to World Bank estimates, produces around 10,000 tonnes of waste every day. Less than 20 percent is collected by the urban authorities, according to a recent study on waste management in DRC cities.

The city produces thousands of plastic bottles, which are thrown away by users after use. And amid rapid population growth, waste management has become a real headache.

Officially, there has been a policy against single-use plastics in Kinshasa since 2021. Yet its implementation and lack of financial resources to deal with this problem have hampered it.

Read: Hundreds of activists demand plastic action in Kenya

Unlike peers in East African Community (EAC) such as Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, the DRC has not banned officially some of these plastics. In Kinshasa, in 2021, a decree issued by the governor of Kinshasa-Gentiny Ngobila, banned the sale of plastic bags. It didn’t help.


It is not that plastics have been totally eliminated in other countries that banned single-use plastics. In fact, porous borders and corruption have often seen single-use plastics smuggled across borders all over the EAC.

Kinshasa, however, has lacked on all fronts: political will, money and support. The last external partner to agree to fund this service was the European Union (EU). Until 2015, the EU was spending up to $1 million to clean up a third of the areas of Kinshasa, Africa's third largest city.

A policy of recycling plastic bottles was later put in place. Under this policy, used bottles are to be collected and sold to a firm to recycle them and clean up the city at the same time. One kilo of plastic is worth 100 Congolese francs ($0.03). A small sum, but one that has created an economic activity in Kinshasa.

Even though private sector recycling of plastic has become an economic sector in its own right, millions of plastics are thrown into the streets and rivers, and this is having a major impact on the environment. Recycling has not been sufficient. In a city where it rains 8 out of 12 months of the year, piles of rubbish are a source of pollution, flooding and disease.

“Many gutters are clogged with household waste, bags and plastic bottles, often dumped by local residents. Streams and rivers are filled with the same waste. This represents a real danger for the environment and shows that the authorities are powerless to clean up the city,” said Congolese environmentalist Luc Lutala.

When the ban was imposed, not only did the marketing of packaging bags and other bags continue, but it flourished. The sachet and bottle businessmen showed that they paid little heed to the instructions of the Kinshasa authorities.

The impact of plastic pollution has reached worrying proportions, to the point where in several places, rubbish is piling up next to houses or next to businesses, creating a sore.

Read: Young Egyptians battle plastic plague

In April this year, when the National Independent Electoral Commission organised the governors' elections in Kinshasa, virtually all the candidates made cleaning up the city a priority in their programmes.

Gentiny Ngobila, the outgoing governor of Kinshasa, admitted to having left rubbish dumps in the streets of Kinshasa. He is therefore leaving the incoming governor, Daniel Bumba, a heavy legacy to carry.

In 2019, when he came to power, President Félix Tshisekedi and Governor Gentiny Ngobila called for a change of mentality in support of a programme to make Kinshasa a flourishing, innovative and healthy city.

"Sometimes the illnesses we get here are because of our behaviour. It’s not a curse. Often, it's because of mismanagement of rubbish. We are asking you to change your mentality. We need to change. By launching Kin Bopeto, we are also sending a very strong message to the whole country", said President Tshisekedi.

Although the programme stipulated that every inhabitant of Kinshasa should devote three hours of every Saturday morning to sanitation work, this policy of “civic-mindedness and patriotism” was not really followed up on a large scale.

The "Kin Bopeto" (Kinshasa cleanliness) programme has failed to turn Kinshasa into "Kin la belle" (Kin, the beautiful city), as this town was known in the distant past. Instead, the Congolese capital has inherited the mocking name of "Kin la poubelle" (Kin the dustbin).