Recycling plastic waste, Colombia

Improving the livelihoods of waste workers with Ocean Conservancy 

We’re proud to support Ocean Conservancy’s ongoing initiatives in Colombia and Vietnam where, together with local NGO partners, we’re exploring opportunities to improve the livelihoods of informal waste workers and develop the value chain for secondary plastics. 

A different future for plastic waste

Each year, an estimated 11 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean, creating countless environmental issues. Solutions are required at every level: from policies that restrict our reliance on virgin, single-use and low-value plastics, to better protections for the informal waste workers on whom many societies rely to collect plastics before they enter the ocean. Ocean Conservancy aims to combat the issue of plastic mismanagement and plastic pollution at every stage of a plastic’s life cycle, with projects underway in multiple countries.

In 2021, an Ocean Conservancy project that centres the experience of waste workers, commenced in Colombia and Vietnam. In these countries, as in many others, informal waste workers play a critical but generally under-valued role in recycling systems, picking, collecting and sorting plastic waste, and reducing the amount of plastic waste entering the environment. Without them, there would certainly be even more plastic in our ocean.

We’re now supporting the project for another two years, during which time Ocean Conservancy, its partners CEMPRE (in Colombia) and CECR (in Vietnam), and the global coordinating partner iWrc, will continue to build on successful activities and explore new solutions to simultaneously improve livelihoods and better protect the environment.


Supporting waste workers

According to the International Labor Organization, globally, an estimated 15-20 million informal sector waste workers collect approximately 60% of all plastics for recycling (Lau et al. 2020).

Informal waste workers perform an essential role, preventing waste from polluting the environment and identifying waste for recycling; however, they largely work under poor and unsafe conditions and receive minimal income for their efforts – rarely meeting minimum wage, let alone living wage, benchmarks.

IKEA Social Entrepreneurship is supporting Ocean Conservancy’s project to further explore and implement improvements in the wellbeing of informal sector waste workers, develop better methods of collecting and sorting plastics, and establish end-markets for waste plastics. A viable balance between supply and demand will not only produce more income for waste workers, but also help more recyclable plastics enter the value chain.

In local communities, CEMPRE and CECR are delivering practical support to waste worker cooperatives (in Colombia) and groups (in Vietnam), which includes supporting formalisation processes, capacity-building training (through the iWrc University), facilitating the transport of materials, enhanced income opportunities, storage for recyclables and development of end-market relationships.

As a voluntary association owned and operated by its members, cooperatives that meet the economic, social and cultural needs of the group are atype of social enterprise that can create direct social impact for those members and their families.


I have been in the recycling trade for two years and I am very grateful because we have received a lot of support and enhanced income. The [Ocean Conservancy] initiative has given us many benefits such as supermarket vouchers and we have participated in awareness days such as beach clean-ups.

Adriana Gutiérrez: recycler from Santa Marta, Colombia 


Responsible sourcing in a circular economy 

Building on the first two years, the Colombia project enters year three with 27 cooperatives participating on its Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Over 2,600 waste workers are directly involved, with some 150,000 people in surrounding communities exposed to awareness raising activities and indirect benefits. In Hanoi, Vietnam, 200 waste workers were engaged and 9,600 people positively impacted in 2021-22, with year three soon to recommence in the region, pending final government approval. 

CEMPRE and CECR are supported by social assurance partner iWrc, which provides work-place trainings, such as worker health, safety, labor rights, prevention of child and forced labor, and best practices in organisation and management. iWrc brings lessons learned from its 15 years of supporting informal sector waste and recycling cooperatives and individuals in Brazil, where similar projects have had success identifying high-potential plastics and other materials suited to re-insertion into material supply chains and leveraging new markets to improve waste workers’ livelihoods. 

Through the [Ocean Conservancy] project, the CECR team has worked with informal women waste collectors, community, schools, government, the Vietnam Women’s Union and recycling companies to collectively work to address plastic waste pollution. The trainings, improved income, and formalisation policies for informal waste sectors are needed to effectively manage municipal waste and recycling, and to implement Extended Producer Responsibility to ensure a more circular economy in Vietnam

Mrs. Doan Vu Thao Ly: Deputy Director of Center for Environment and Community (CECR)


In pursuit of the wider IKEA circularity and social ambition, it’s crucial we explore responsible sourcing opportunities. Supporting Ocean Conservancy in Colombia and Vietnam, countries where IKEA has supply operations (with retail to come), provides insight into practical and possible next steps and helps us understand where we can influence broader change.

At IKEA we are committed to building responsible secondary raw material supply chains that safeguard the health, safety and well-being of workers all the way to the point of waste collection. We know however, we cannot do this alone. This partnership, will give us the opportunity to explore solutions in collaboration with experts and impacted workers that can effectively support better conditions in the first mile of the supply chain.

Annika Mulder: Responsible Sourcing Manager, Secondary Raw Materials, IKEA

For more on the project, view the year one project report from Ocean Conservancy