Three Ways the Humanitarian Community is Going Green While Saving Lives

Used once and then discarded, 40% of the world’s plastic waste comes from packaging. In light of this fact, many in the humanitarian community are taking a hard look at their own use of packaging and the waste it creates. On World Environment Day, learn how USAID and other humanitarian organizations are working together to create sustainable change.

USAID Saves Lives
5 min readJun 3, 2021
The scale of waste produced by humanitarian operations across the world requires concerted, collaborative action. Photo credit: UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

When a disaster or crisis strikes anywhere around the world, tons of food and other critical relief supplies needed to provide shelter and protection are transported to far-flung locations. These items are carefully packaged so they reach the people who need them rapidly and in good condition. But after urgent assistance has been provided, the packaging produces unintended waste in communities that do not always have the means to dispose of it.

After disasters strike, the humanitarian community works quickly to get aid to affected communities, often by airlift. In 2019, USAID worked with WFP to provide food assistance (above left) after Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique. However, the tin cans and sacks, like the ones seen above (right) at a distribution in Sudan, are generally used once and discarded. In most cases, they can be repurposed, and, if proper infrastructure is in place, recycled. Photo credits: (left) Adam Weimer / USAID; (right) UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

Here lies a major environmental challenge for the humanitarian community: Packaging is essential for making sure life-saving assistance reaches those who need it, but it also creates vast amounts of waste that are difficult to manage.

For some time, many agencies have been actively working on solutions to this packaging challenge. For example, local recycling projects have been piloted by the World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. Humanitarian organizations are working with local entrepreneurs in Uganda and Colombia to use recycled materials to develop shelter and water, sanitation and hygiene supplies on a small scale.

In Haiti, there are no adequate recycling facilities so plastic bottles often end up being discarded in landfills. Photo credit: NEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

But the magnitude of this challenge is far too great for any single organization to handle. For this reason, USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance and 16 other organizations have joined forces to make packaging in humanitarian assistance more environmentally and socially responsible.

Our Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management was set up to allow the international community to take collective responsibility for the packaging waste from humanitarian operations by coordinating our actions, pooling resources and sharing knowledge. Here are the three ways USAID is working with partners to reduce packaging waste:

1.Working to reduce the problem at the source.

Marissa Cabalan, sorts recycling that she’s collected from households and public spaces in her neighborhood in the Philippines as part of the SUCCESS project, which is funded by USAID and run by Catholic Relief Services. Photo credit: CRS

Humanitarian assistance will inevitably create waste, so we need to work with suppliers to come up with better practices and materials. We will not recycle or dispose our way out of this challenge. We need more sustainably packaged products and the right processes in place, so organizations can purchase them and get them to the people who need them when they need them.

2. Looking for ways to reuse and repurpose.

Part of the solution is to look at waste differently, avoiding the paradox of ‘wasting waste.’ In fact, packaging waste can become a resource for other productive uses and create opportunities in the midst of this challenge. For example, turning packaging waste — boxes, plastic bags, stretch wrap and tin cans — into household goods like cradles for children, gardening pots, backpacks and solar cookers can create dignified jobs for the very people affected by crises and help them get back on their feet.

Reusing and repurposing can help people make a living and even save lives. In Colombia, a USAID partner helped families build household gardens and chicken coops by reusing bottles. In Nepal, community disaster responder trainees learned to make emergency life vests out of empty water bottles and old sacks. Photo credits: (left) USAID partner; (right) Red Cross Nepal

3. Developing new ways of disposing of packaging waste.

At the moment, not all packaging waste can be reused or repurposed. Some humanitarian assistance items, such as medical supplies, need to be disposed of separately.

Medical supplies cannot be easily recycled or repurposed and the COVID-19 pandemic has produced new streams of this costly waste. Photo credit: NEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

Even if all packaging waste could be reused or recycled, we do not have the technologies and capacity to do it. We are working with innovators, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, as well as the private sector to come up with new technologies and solutions to dispose of waste at larger quantities and at a faster pace that can be made available to communities that receive humanitarian assistance.

WATCH: 110 plastic bottles are loaded into a vertical baler as they test ways to optimize waste compaction at MIT Lincoln Lab. Each baling cycle is completed in less than a minute, densely compressing bottles so they are more easily transported. MIT Lincoln Lab hopes to integrate the baler into the Mobile Photovoltaic Recycling System they are developing with USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. Video credit: MIT Lincoln Lab

Ultimately, life-saving assistance cannot leave a legacy of environmental degradation in the parts of the world affected by crises. This is a global challenge that requires a global effort. Together, we can speak with a louder voice, share responsibilities and resources to deal with our packaging waste responsibly and sustainably, and create large scale solutions that all humanitarians organizations can use.

For more information about this Joint Initiative, visit its webpage. You can also subscribe to the quarterly newsletters to stay up to date.

The Joint Initiative’s members are: Catholic Relief Services, Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster, Danish Refugee Council, European Commission Humanitarian Office, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Global Logistics Cluster, Global Shelter Cluster, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Organization for Migration, Save the Children, United Nations Environment Programme /Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Joint Environment Unit, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, USAID, World Food Programme



USAID Saves Lives

USAID's Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance saves lives on behalf of the American people.