Credit: UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

Managing Packaging Waste in Humanitarian Assistance

Progress made toward greater coordination and collaboration

The humanitarian sector faces a major environmental challenge: how it manages the waste created by the packaging of the life-saving assistance it provides, such as food and other essential items. Plastic waste most often flows into communities that lack the money, or the government support, to protect themselves from these hazards. For some time, many actors have been actively working on solutions to this challenge, including the Global Logistics Cluster, the World Food Programme (WFP), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and others. Building upon this work, a diverse group of humanitarian agencies gathered in November 2020 to chart a collaborative path towards a more environmentally responsible management of packaging waste in humanitarian assistance. 

The group agreed to come together and pool resources behind a Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management. While the initiative is still in its very early days, the group identified some key areas for exploration and action. 
  • Considering both ‘bottom up’ and ‘top-down’ approaches throughout the entire supply chain: Actors at the operational level will need to implement solutions, while others in decision-making roles will need to provide the tools and resources to make these improvements.
  • Reducing the problem at the source: Humanitarian assistance will inevitably create waste, so it is essential to reduce the amount of waste generated at its source, working with suppliers to identify better practices and materials.
  • Using circular economy approaches: Taking a circular economy approach can allow us to find opportunities in the midst of this challenge. For example, solid waste management has the potential to bring immediate, dignified work to crisis-affected populations.
  • Assessing responsibility for packaging waste: This includes establishing clear ownership of liabilities, while also considering the potential of rising costs, as higher standards may mean higher cost of assistance in the immediate term.
The group also agreed on the need to gain a greater understanding of the packaging waste challenge among the humanitarian sector and other key players. Similarly, greater awareness of available and potential solutions will encourage uptake and engagement.

About 20 prepackaged food for individuals.

Credit: UNEP/OCHA Joint Environmental Unit
The organisations that have to date confirmed their participation in the initiative are listed below. More are expected to join as efforts progress.
The first phase of this Joint Initiative focused on the coordination of environmental assessments, which was led by USAID in collaboration with a technical advisory group of humanitarian assistance and conservation stakeholders. As the incoming United States administration has renewed its commitment to climate and environment, USAID will continue to support environmental safeguarding in its work. To find out more, contact us and subscribe to this newsletter.
Why do we need to tackle packaging waste management in humanitarian operations?

As the world’s humanitarian needs rise, so does the need for assistance operations to keep their environmental footprint to a minimum. Packaging is essential for food and commodity delivery and protection in humanitarian assistance. But it also often produces an unintended waste stream in fragile and strained operational contexts. Limited time, resources, and infrastructure frequently lead to poor packaging waste management in many humanitarian settings. 

In parallel, many countries receiving assistance Sustainability in Humanitarian Supply Chainsare saying no to disposable plastics, forcing relief organizations to rethink how they package, supply, and manage their assistance. The humanitarian community needs to find ways to minimize the environmental impact of its packaging and turn it into opportunities for those it aims to assist. The report Sustainability in Humanitarian Supply Chains: A Preliminary Scoping of Improvements in Packaging sets out a preliminary analysis of this challenge and provides recommendations for tackling it. A fact sheet is also available.  

News and events

The EU Green Deal and Humanitarian Aid
The European Commission’s Directorate-General for ECHO (DG ECHO) has launched an ambitious approach to reducing the environmental impacts of the humanitarian aid that it and its partners provide. Tackling the environmental footprint of plastic and packaging will be a key component.

Aligned with the European Green Deal strategy, the approach spans across five pillars: climate neutrality, climate resilience, circular economy, zero pollution, and biodiversity protection. Key areas will include clean energy solutions, avoiding deforestation, choosing materials with a lower carbon footprint, avoiding plastic when possible, greening the organisation’s logistics and supply chain, implementing a robust waste management system, and working more closely with local actors. For more information contact: 

Credit: Amanda George, 2019
The Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+) is updated and available in three languages: English, French, and Spanish. NEAT+ is a rapid and simple project-level environmental screening tool that assists humanitarian actors to quickly identify environmental issues before planning emergency programmes. Waste management is featured in three modules: shelter, WASH, and food security and livelihoods. The assessment results also provide tips on how to mitigate waste management risks. Access the tool.
An urban NEAT+ is currently under development. It features a module on livelihoods, with a strong focus on the waste management sector. The tool is being adapted from the existing NEAT+ to support users with identifying environmental concerns in urban settings. The tool was piloted in Brazil and Colombia in November 2020. For more information contact:
Credit: UNEP/OCHA Joint Environmental Unit                                          

Webinars: COVID-19, Environment and Emergencies. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and India’s National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) ran six webinars about readiness for and response to the environmental dimensions of emergencies, with a special focus on the additional challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Check out the Global Webinar Series. Watch the webinars focusing on "Crisis Waste Management: COVID-19 and beyond" and "Enhancing the Sustainability of Humanitarian Action." 

Webinar: Waste Management during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNEP has developed guidance notes to assist Member States to deal with waste management issues during the pandemic, and assisted some to assess their respective situations. Between September and December 2020, the UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit remotely deployed experts from the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) to Afghanistan, Haiti, India, South Sudan and Sudan to support with the COVID-19 response, including related waste management. A webinar showcased findings and recommendations. Watch the webinar.

Related resources 

EHA Connect: Materials & Supply Chain 

Environmental Emergencies Centre (EE Centre): COVID-19 

UNEP Fact Sheets: COVID-19 Waste Management

Waste Management During the COVID-19 Pandemic: From Response to Recovery  

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This email was sent on behalf of the Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Packaging Waste Management. The Joint Initiative’s first phase was supported by USAID. The second phase will be a collaborative effort spearheaded by leading humanitarian organizations.

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