Joint Initiative On Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management

As the demand for humanitarian assistance grows, so does the need for more sustainable packaging solutions.

Plastic waste in Haiti. Photo credit: UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit

The Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Packaging Waste Management is a unique collective that convenes humanitarian actors from the UN system, NGOs, bilateral and multilateral donors and academics to ensure that life-saving assistance does not leave a legacy of environmental degradation in crisis-affected parts of the world. The initiative aims to build a greater understanding of the packaging waste challenge among the humanitarian sector and bring stakeholders together to find and implement creative, collective solutions.


Purpose and Need

Humanitarian assistance demands continue to rise in parallel with an increasingly urgent and underfunded global solid waste management crisis. In times of disaster, food and other critical relief supplies needed to provide shelter and protection are transported to locations across the world.

Marissa Cabalan sorts recycling in the Philippines as part of the SUCCESS project, which is funded by USAID and run by Catholic Relief Services. Photo credit: CRS

These items are carefully packaged so they reach the people who need them rapidly and in good condition. However, after urgent assistance has been provided the packaging produces unintended waste in communities that do not always have the means to dispose of it.

Packaging is essential for ensuring life-saving assistance reaches those who need it, but it also produces large amounts of unintended waste. Countries that commonly receive humanitarian assistance often lack sufficient infrastructure or management systems to handle regularly produced solid waste, let alone the waste generated by sudden, comprehensive assistance efforts. Improper waste management of plastic packaging can inadvertently damage human and environmental health. For all these reasons, many humanitarian organizations are rethink their packaging practices.


The Joint Initiative’s work programme is based on circular economy principles and intends to mobilize partner organizations to reduce packaging waste by:

  1. Reducing the problem at the source

Humanitarian assistance will inevitably create waste. The Joint Initiative aims to shed light on the need for more sustainable packaging and current and future solutions. This includes, for example, working together to refine procurement and supply chain delivery processes that enable organizations to access more sustainable packaging within the timeframes and of the quality required for humanitarian operations.

  1. Looking for ways to reuse and repurpose

The evidence shows that packaging waste can become a resource for other productive uses and create livelihood opportunities for local communities. For example, packaging waste such as boxes, plastic bags, stretch wrap and tin cans can be repurposed into household goods including cradles, gardening pots, backpacks and solar cookers.

In Colombia, a USAID partner helped families build household gardens and chicken coops by reusing bottles.
  1. Developing new ways of disposing of packaging waste

Currently, not all packaging waste can be reused or repurposed. For example, medical supplies need to be disposed of separately. But even if all packaging waste could be reused or recycled, the processing technologies and capacities are not yet in place. The Joint Initiative aims to partner with innovators, academics and the private sector, to come up with new technologies and solutions to dispose of waste at larger quantities and more rapidly, and, crucially, to identify ways in which these can be made available to the communities that receive humanitarian assistance.


Above: New solutions will include new technologies. In this video, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory loads 110 plastic bottles into a vertical baler as they test ways to optimize waste compaction. Each baling cycle is completed in less than a minute, densely compressing bottles so that they are more easily transported to a recycling facility. 

Project Team

The initiative’s day to day activities are carried out by a project team, comprised of a multidisciplinary team of experts in humanitarian operations, waste management, sustainability, partnerships and communications. USAID supports the Joint Initiative by funding this project team via its Environmental Compliance Support (ECOS) contract.


USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA)
Dr. Erika Clesceri, Bureau Environmental Officer

Project team:
Chris Pettit, ECOS, Project Lead
Samantha Brangeon
Amro El-Zoubi
Gregory Rulifson, BHA Liaison
Carmen Saab, Project Coordination
Gabriela Flores, Communications



The organizations that have to date confirmed their participation in the initiative are listed below. More are expected to join as efforts progress.


For more information regarding the Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Packaging Waste Management, please review the Preliminary Scoping of Improvements in Packaging document produced by USAID in July 2020, or join the initiative’s mailing list to receive quarterly newsletters.

Previous issues of the newsletter can be accessed below:

Issue 5, February 2022
Issue 4, October 2021
Issue 3, July 2021
Issue 2, April 2021
Issue 1, February 2021

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