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.

NEW: Our updated activity plan 

This document outlines our outputs and all the activities that we are undertaking to support our partners to manage packaging more sustainably.

NEW: Our results framework

This document shows how our outputs and activities are contributing to the outcomes agreed by our partners and the overall objective of supporting the delivery of lifesaving assistance more effectively and efficiently by protecting people from environmental risks.


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, Technical Lead
Fiona Cook, Outreach, Coordination and Monitoring
Amro El-Zoubi, Environmental Consultant
Gregory Rulifson, BHA Liaison
Jaime Capron, Project Coordination
Gabriela Flores, Communications


NEW: Follow us on LinkedIn! 


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


COMPENDIUM OF BEST PRACTICES – Managing Packaging Waste Sustainably: Lessons from Humanitarian Organizations

Our compendium of best practices is growing!

New: ICRC Afghanistan Case Study

As part of the Sustainable Supply Chain Alliance (SSCA) project, ICRC has been working to green its supply chain across its operations. In Afghanistan, the organisation has replaced plastic with cardboard in its NFI distribution held in prisons, saving more than 60 000 plastic bags a year.

En français: Étude de cas CIRC en Afghanistan

Dans le cadre du projet Sustainable Supply Chain Alliance (SSCA), le CICR travaille à apporter des changements pour rendre ses chaînes d’approvisionnement plus respectueuses de l’environnement. En Afghanistan, le CICR a remplacé l’emballage plastique utilisé pour les distributions de NFI dans les prisons par du carton, économisant ainsi 60 0000 sacs plastiques par an.

New! Plastic Free E-Voucher Shops in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: The World Food Programme’s Experience 

Encouraged by the enforcement of plastic bans by the government of Bangladesh, as well as the WFP’s own plan to phase out 90% of SUP by 2O26, the WFP decided to step up efforts to reduce its environmental footprint and to explore alternatives to SUP in Cox’s Bazar.

En français: Programmes de transferts monétaires à Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh: Des boutiques zéro plastique. L’expérience du Programme Alimentaire Mondial 

Encouragé par l’entrée en vigueur de l’interdiction du plastique par le gouvernement du Bangladesh ainsi que par ses plans visant à éliminer progressivement 90 % des plastiques à usage unique (PUU), le PAM a décidé d’intensifier ses efforts pour réduire son empreinte environnementale et d’explorer des alternatives aux PUU à Cox’s Bazar.

New: ShelterBox’s success in eliminating single use plastic 

This case study illustrates how a relatively small organization with little purchasing power has managed to make a significant reduction to its packaging, leading to avoiding the use of 173,396 pieces of plastic because of their efforts.

En français: Le succès de ShelterBox dans l’élimination du plastique à usage unique

Cette étude de cas illustre la manière dont une organisation relativement petite et
disposant d’un faible pouvoir d’achat a réussi à réduire considérablement ses
emballages. ShelterBox a au total évité́ l’utilisation de 173 396 morceaux de plastique grâce à ses efforts.

More case studies will be added here soon. Watch this space!


WEBINAR SERIES: Packaging Matters

Episode 1: The journey to sustainable packaging: synergies between humanitarian organizations and the private sector
Hear from ALPINTER, Mondi Group and the WFP who shared insights into bottlenecks and levers for humanitarians to make real improvement to packaging. Speakers: Susan Brunner, Tim Van Cauwenberghe, Agathe Tiberghien and Carole Manceau.
Catch up: recording, outcomes document, and presentations.



REPORT: “Who’s Doing What” On Sustainable Procurement? An overview of what humanitarian organizations are doing to “green” their procurement practices

This report maps existing initiatives, projects, networks, and groups working on green procurement and the tools and guidance they have produced. It also provides links to further resources that document humanitarian organizations’ successes or challenges in using these tools and guidance in operational contexts.

NEW FACT SHEET: Packaging, plastic and climate change

REPORT: Multi-Donor Policy Landscape Analysis for Humanitarian Assistance Supply Chains

An overview of how humanitarian donors currently address issues of environmental mainstreaming in humanitarian action specifically looking at green logistics and sustainable supply chains.

REPORT: Guidance Note on Regulatory & Legislative Frameworks for Humanitarian Workers

An overview of existing frameworks governing plastics and how they are likely to evolve. This report also documents awareness-raising efforts and changes in procurement practices.

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 7, September 2022

Issue 6, June 2022

Issue 5, February 2022

Issue 4, October 2021

Issue 3, July 2021

Issue 2, April 2021

Issue 1, February 2021


Follow us on LinkedIn! 

to top
icon-close-alt icon-bookmark icons / login