21 Apr 2021

Venue: Online | Webex

This event was convened as part of the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) - one of the largest humanitarian events where actors discuss and solve common challenges in humanitarian affairs.

About this session

Plastics in humanitarian operations – what is the issue and what can we do about it?

Plastic materials are used for multiple purposes in humanitarian efforts, e.g. plastic relief items, construction plastics, medical and pharmaceutical plastics, agro-plastics, in IT, telecom and electric equipment, etc.

Most of these plastic products ultimately end up as waste. In many contexts where humanitarian action takes place, sustainable waste management solutions rarely exist. When not disposed of appropriately, plastic pollution becomes an environmental problem.

Humanitarian organisations are committed to reducing the generation of waste from their activities and, when reduction is not possible, to improve waste management, repair, and recycling options.

This session took a closer look at a cross-sectoral, innovation partnership approach to finding new solutions to plastic pollution, including take a circular approach to collecting and upcycling plastic, establishing sustainable business models, and identifying or developing a new packaging material, replacing plastic packaging all together.

Participants discovered why plastic pollution is a challenge for humanitarian operations, how innovation partnerships can help us find new solutions, and possible ways forward.


Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks

The 2021 edition of the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks, a unique forum where humanitarian networks and partnerships can meet and address key humanitarian issues, is running virtually from 19 April to 7 May. Co-hosted by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), it offers a 3-week programme of events on various issues. Various events are addressing environmental topics.


Plastic is flexible, durable, light weight and low priced and thus a useful material for humanitarian efforts, including in:

  • assistance programmes: e.g., relief items made of plastic including solar lanterns and other e-waste, building and construction plastics, medical and pharmaceutical plastics, agro-plastics;
  • support functions: e.g., plastic packaging, IT and telecom equipment, automotive plastics;
  • offices: e.g., single-use plastics, stationery, cleaning accessories and detergent packaging, furniture and flooring, IT and electric equipment.

These plastic products ultimately end up as waste. In many countries where humanitarian assistance takes place, sustainable waste management solutions rarely exist. When not disposed of appropriately, plastic becomes an environmental problem. If left in nature, it degrades into micro-particles and spreads into oceans and rivers. However, when collected and handled correctly, plastic can be a resource. With a well-developed circular economy business model, it can also be the source of employment and support the creation of sustainable products needed in a community.

Humanitarian organisations are committed to reduce the generation of waste from their activities and, when reduction is not possible, to improve waste management, repair and recycling options. Innovation partnerships is a useful approach to reach this goal.

By designing innovation processes around partnerships; consortia of humanitarian organisations, people affected by crises and conflict, governments, academia and private sector expertise, several objectives can be achieved:

  • a comprehensive understanding of the challenge at hand
  • the involvement of the latest expertise on all aspects of potential, new solutions
  • an aggregated ask to the private sector
  • improved conditions for scaling of successful solutions

These partnerships can be hard to forge, but the outcome is more likely to be sustainable and scalable.

This session will present five ongoing innovation projects addressing plastic waste through an innovation partnership approach. The projects that will be presented have taken different approaches to the plastic challenge:

  • How to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in humanitarian operations by developing/ using alternative, more sustainable materials?
  • How to ensure that the products bought are sustainable, repairable and, recyclable, and that local contexts cater for these options?
  • How to set up circular business models that collect and upcycle the plastic to support local economies and communities sustainably?

The lead organisations have all partnered with the private sector in developing the technical solution and business model behind their projects.


Welcome & Introduction

Welcome | Safia Verjee, Kenya Red Cross (moderator)

Humanitarian organisations use plastics for multiple purposes. However, sustainable waste management systems to deal with the plastic waste that our operations generate are rarely in place. Many efforts are ongoing by donor agencies, partners, and humanitarian organisations to walk the talk. As humanitarian organisations, we wish to promote good plastic waste management and ensure that our operations are using sustainable materials, approaches and methods. Therefore, today’s discussion with several organisations around the world is an important conversation to move this agenda forward.

Welcome | Ambassador Tine Mørch Smith, Permanent Mission of Norway to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva

Green and innovative humanitarian response is a key focus area for Norway. This is linked to renewable energy, as part of our development priorities, and climate, peace and security, as our priority areas for our engagement in the Security Council as an elected Member. In collaboration with Switzerland and the Geneva Environment Network, we recently co-organised the Geneva Beat Plastic Pollution Dialogues, a series of events which clearly showed the global attention and willingness to address the issue of plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution is largely due to lack of good governance and that the management of plastics across the whole life cycle has been underregulated. The amount of plastic waste generated is expected to double by 2040. Mismanaged plastic waste is causing a threat to ecosystems, livelihood and human health. Vulnerable groups suffer the most from these problems. This is a significant challenge for the humanitarian sector.

As part of its efforts, Norway finances innovation projects focusing on more sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions within humanitarian aid. Since 2014, Norway has pushed for stronger global commitment to address marine litter and plastic pollution with a new global agreement as the most effective solution. At the 5th UN Environment Assembly in February 2021, we heard many voices speaking in favor of a new global agreement, and the first ever ministerial conference on the issue was announced by Germany, Ghana, Ecuador and Vietnam.

There is no vaccine against plastic pollution. But the latest developments have brought us further towards a solution to one of the fastest growing environmental crises of our times. We need to continue to share knowledge and explore solutions together. States, academia, humanitarian organisations, affected communities and private sector actors all need to be involved.

As part of the HNPW, this event brings together actors who have made progress in terms of innovative partnerships between humanitarian organisations and the private sector. We hope this session can contribute to new connections and information exchange about good ways forward and further inspiration in addressing this global plastic crisis.

The Plastic Challenge in Humanitarian Response | Anna Maria Liwak, ICRC

Humanity produces 300 million tons of plastics annually, 40% of which is used for packaging. While only 9% of plastic waste is recycled, 8 million tons ends up in the oceans every year. As plastic does not biodegrade, it remains in the environment posing significant threat to ecosystem and human health. These figures highlight that preventing plastic waste is a global emergency.

Plastic pollution represent a considerable challenge in humanitarian action. Plastic materials are used for multiple purposes in humanitarian efforts, such as for relief items, construction, medical and pharmaceutical use, agro-plastics, IT, telecom and electric equipment, etc. While the plastic footprint of the sector is hard to evaluate due to lack of data, we can assume that the plastic distributed ends up in landfill or the environment, because many countries do not have the capacity to appropriately manage plastic waste. Communities in which humanitarian organisations operate often lack sound waste management systems and are the most affected by environmental degradation.

In the face of this challenge, humanitarian actors are looking for solutions. Multi-layered solutions seem to be most effective. The ICRC is engaging with the issue through multiple projects targeting:

  • Plastic waste prevention & management
  • Packaging reduction & optimisation
  • Packaging recycling
  • Product eco-design & quality assurance
  • Assistance programmes & circular economy
  • Sustainable alternatives & end of life management

Five Projects Addressing Plastic Pollution in Humanitarian Context

Speakers from various organisations engaged in the field presented projects to tackle plastic pollution in humanitarian contexts. These projects are all funded by Innovation Norway.

Camp+ | Care – Cotilda Nakyeyune

Implemented in a refugee settlement in Uganda, the Camp+ project aims to address the problem of increasing plastic litter present in the settlement and surrounding communities. In partnership with…, Care developed a solution to turn plastic wate into valuable products that can be sold in the market for household use, farming or as construction materials.

Plastic is collected from households and in through organisations that provide relief items in plastic containers. A solar-powered plastic upcycling unit allows to transform plastic into new products. The unit employs locals and the management is also in hands of community members.

Waste for Warmth | Engineers Without Borders – Egil Reksten

Developed as a partnership between The Polyfloss Factory, Field Ready, and Engineers without Borders Norway, the Waste for Warmth project focuses on developing small scale manufacturing capacities for shelter winterisation. Many displaced people live in temporary shelter and lack protection against the cold. Current approaches to assistance rely heavily on distribution of blankets, stoves and fuel, resulting in increased living costs, health risks and negative environmental impact.

The project is developing a small and field-friendly machine which transforms plastic waste into insulation products for warm and safe shelters. Current tests showed that the insulation panel prototype allows to reduce fuel consumption for heating by 40%. A field manufacturing pilot is now being set up in Turkey to demonstrate a sustained operation at scale, providing work opportunities for displaced people and stimulating a local market for recycled plastics. We now are looking to connect with NGOs and humanitarian organisations willing to develop livelihood and winterisation programs with this machine.

Recycling of Solar Waste in Refugee Settings | IOM – Gemma Arthurson

The IOM-led project “Greening humanitarian responses through recovery, repair, and recycling of solar products in displacement settings” aims to reduce inadequate disposal of solar products by developing circular economy solutions, recognizing the significant impact of humanitarian agencies on waste in displacement settings. Although addressing a specific type of e-waste, this project has many similarities with projects dealing with plastic waste.

The results of the project to date focus on the analysis of the regulatory environment, the collection of field data, a market dialogue to identify relevant stakeholders, and research on potential barriers and opportunities for innovation. IOM has selected three submitted proposals for the implementation phase which will look at different aspects of the plastics and solar waste value stream.

Polypropylene Bags: Design, Field Testing and Scaling up of an Alternative Material | ICRC – Anna Maria Liwak

Implemented by ICRC, WFP, and UNHCR, this project aims to develop sustainable alternatives to polypropylene (PB) bags which are commonly used as packaging for food, commodities and basic relief items. In 2018, the ICRC alone dispatched 150 million tons of these bags. While PB bags are technically recyclable, they rarely get recycled due to the lack of infrastructure, and lower quality of the recycled products.

A key step is to define the requirements that the new solution should meet, including technical specifications, as well as social, economic and environmental criteria. After developing solutions, three alternatives will be tested in the field, and the best one will be selected to be mainstreamed within humanitarian organisations. This project aims to contribute to the organisations’ commitment to reduce the plastic waste generation of their humanitarian activities.

Plastic in Refugee Settings: from Waste to Value | UNHCR – Mohamed Tahar Kachebi

This project takes place in the Sahrawi refugee camps, where more than 1700 tons of plastic waste is generated per year. Currently, plastic waste is mixed with other types of solid waste, transported to landfills and incinerated. By upcycling plastic waste, the project aims to preserve the environment and safeguard the health of the local population while creating economic opportunities for the refugees.

UNHRC & partners have identified the adequate technologies and developed solutions to transform plastic waste into furniture, thus substituting wood. The project is currently implemented with four partners working in the sector within a circular economy business model, and it constitutes an innovative source of employment.

Needs Assessment and Ecosystem Analysis | Gemma Arthurson, IOM

Humanitarian agencies supply masses of essential plastic products. While there are purchased based on beneficiary needs assessment, there is currently almost no system in place for their reuse, recovery, or recycling. This means that humanitarian intervention can have unintended negative impacts on human health and the environment. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has tripled over the last decade. Meanwhile, solid waste management has been identified as one of the most urgent global challenges of our times. While assistance provides essential aid for people affected by crises, it also offers opportunities towards longer term development goals.

As part of solar waste project, the IOM gathered data on how individuals and households dispose of broken products. The findings provide useful insights for better waste management. Bringing a broken product to a repair shop was identified as a common behavior, suggesting that motivation for reuse exists and can be capitalized upon in interventions. When disposing of the waste, convenience is a key factor to consider for any behavior change. Repairing the product by themselves was rather uncommon, suggesting that providing tools, spare parts and knowledge could be an entry point for action.

Overall, the data showed that the end needs of users are not being addressed sufficiently and could be better captured into product design, as well as through repair advocacy and training. The results also showed that site-specific analysis is needed to tailor intervention to each context.

The IOM e-waste project also conducted an analysis to understand the broader environment within which a circular economy sits. Many elements impact waste management, including the regulatory and legislative environment (international goals and strategies, organisational commitments, international and national regulations), all stakeholders involved, local culture and practices, and external threats such as natural disasters, security and geography.

Solutions cannot be developed in isolation, and programs need to be continuously adapting to the wider context. While solutions need to align with the international and national regulatory context, humanitarian organisations should limit the generation of waste even in contexts where there are no regulations.

The analysis of stakeholders and local context looked at both the actors along the linear plastic stream, and the potential actors that can foster a circular economy. Stakeholders’ strengths, weakness and barriers to participation were also be mapped, indicating the required changes at system and individual level. The latter include changes in manufacturing, humanitarian procurement, policy and regulatory requirements, and individual behaviors. Overall, the IOM research paints a picture of the humanitarian sector’s needs and broader ecosystem to plastic waste management.

A Circular Approach to the Plastic Challenge | Jonas Engberg, Care

Today, I would like to share some lesson learnt from the CAMP+ project presented previously. Working in a settlement in Uganda, we identified together with the refugees that plastic pollution is a serious problem and that there is potential for improvement if plastics is handled the right way. In addition, livelihoods and jobs creation is an important need for refugees, which is why we came up with the CAMP+ project which embeds these aspects.

We have chosen a participatory, and human-centred design approach, focused on the engagement of the refugees, identifying not only the product range but also the market potential. It is important that we help construct a sustainable, self-reliant business model for the unit. For that purpose, it is important to identify current price points, market elasticity and material availability.

Let’s take the example of the production of roof titles from plastic waste. The need for roof titles has be identified with the refugees, as current alternatives deteriorates easily. As there is already a market, we had the ambition to make our product cheaper than the current price point of existing products, in order to compete with commercially produced products. Considering the cost of material collection and manufacturing, it is still possible to make an 18% retail margin while selling the product at a lower price than the current price point. The return on investment of entirety of the unit, including initial investment, maintenance, and repair, is around 10,7 years.

This example shows that it is possible to create sustainable businesses even within a settlement, where the price point needs to be as low as possible. This project thus creates a circular business model that enables the value creation to remain within the settlement, in the hands of the people who need it the most. Therefore, it aims at a regenerative economy which balances with the surrounding nature.

Private Sector Cooperation | A Conversation between Marina Villuendas from UNHCR, Gard Sviggum Saabye from Human Brights and representing NGI & Yann Chauvin from Precious Plastics

Marina Villuendas: The Sahrawi displacement is one of the most protracted in the world and the situation in the camp is comprised by their remoteness, limited livelihood opportunities, and harsh environmental conditions. Waste disposal is a challenge, especially with regards to plastics. To respond to this issue, UNHRC is engaging with NGI and Precious Plastics on a new plastic recycling project in the camp.

Gard Saabye: Human Brights is a small company contracted by NGI to oversee the technical aspect of the project. My role is to work on the development of technical solutions and follow-up.

Yann Chauvin: Precious Plastics is a foundation working on simple open-sourced solutions to recycle plastics. On this project, we are managing the provision of machines and the training of people to use these machines on site.

Marina Villuendas: What were the most important factors that you considered in the preparation of the project? How did you come up with this solution?

Gard Saabye: Waste is a massive problem in many refugee settings around the world, particularly with regards to plastic pollution. Based on a mapping of waste streams realized by Engineers without borders and through discussions with NGI and UNHCR, we landed on the idea of creating a recycling facility and collection scheme. The project would involve the refugees in the whole process, keeping operational sustainably in mind.

Marina Villuendas: Did you encounter any challenges during this process?

Yann Chauvin: Plastic recycling is a challenge. Collecting and sorting is complicated due to the large variety of plastic types and the difficulties of competing with virgin plastics. Simplifying and scaling down techniques was important to get people on board and give them ownership. We are not trying to compete on a worldwide market, but rather to anchor the project locally. Another challenge was the impossibility to go on site due to the sanitary situation. Thankfully, this project is very well documented, and we could lean on precious research to move forward.

Marina Villuendas: Regarding the proposed solution, what would be the direct impact for the environment and how can refugees benefit from the project?

Gard Saabye: From an environmental perspective, the priority is to remove plastic from the environment. Prolonging the life of plastic by giving re-purposing follows that purpose and avoids CO2 emissions from incineration. Using recycled plastic for essential products instead of wood allow prevents tree cutting. The project provides an income for the refugees, who are also learning new skills. These are just a few of the benefits among many.

Yann Chauvin: Re-purposing plastics goes through five steps: sorting, shredding, cleaning, melting, and processing. In all these steps, we focus on the possibilities in humanitarian context, for example with manual sorting and closed loop washing system to save water. We always keep in mind how to upscale the project, emphasizing that all machines should be as small and simple as possible.

What Should the Sector do Next, and how do We Scale New Solutions | Andrew Lamb, Field Ready

In order for the sector to move forward in addressing plastic pollution, three angles should be considered:

  1. Localisation is key to the success of the upscaling of solutions. Humanitarian organizations needs to buy from the groups that are working on these innovations so that they can be scaled up. We must recognize that humanitarian organisations currently do not have the right business model and that recycled plastic is a viable market that we should explore. Localisation means that we need to scale up widely and have many small and medium facilities in humanitarian responses.
  2. We need to treat plastic in the sector as a technological disaster. Plastic pollution is creating a number of catastrophes, from health issues to floods and fire outbreaks. The humanitarian sector needs to think of plastic as a new kind of hazard that must be responded too.
  3. We should be thinking in systems, rather than just projects. Moving away from the linear transactions in procurement, a new way of thinking in systems is needed if we are to solve the plastic crisis.

Some of the practical aspects regarding procurement processes need to be adapted, tightening standards in some areas and loosening standards in other areas. We have to keep doing better at prevention, for instance by investing piped water supply system and long-life safe water containers. Finally, educating children about plastic pollution is essential if we are to change our relationship with plastic.

Comments from the audience and Q&A

A series of questions raised by participants were answered. For any additional question, feel free to reach out to the speakers directly.

Concluding remarks

Plastic waste pollution is a challenge in every part of the world. Unless we come together and look for solutions in partnerships, this challenge will remain for years to come. The important takeaway from today’s session is that sustainable innovative partnerships between the private sector, governments and humanitarian organisations is essential to advocate for stronger policies and legislation around plastic waste management. As users of plastics, humanitarian organisations need to be more aware of how they manage plastic waste.