The management of humanitarian waste

Children Scavenge for Valuables in Garbage Dump in Haiti. Photo UN/Logan Abassi. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This article summarises the workshop on the management of waste produced by humanitarian actions which took place on 27th June at the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs with the Crisis and Support Centre (CDCS), humanitarian NGOs and companies as part of the Climate and Humanitarian Working Group of the Groupe de Concertation Humanitaire. This workshop was introduced by Alexis Le Cour Grandmaison and moderated by Annie Evrard from CDCS and Aline Hubert from Groupe URD.

“Our action in humanitarian aid was not aligned with our multilateral efforts and the commitments made in the wake of the Paris Agreement” – Alexis Le Cour Grandmaison, Deputy Director of the Crisis and Support Centre (CDCS)

The environmental impact of humanitarian actions has been a point of discussion over the last decade. However, despite growing awareness, according to the CDCS, out of 250 projects, only 20% have the environment as their main objective. The aim and agenda of this conference was to define a ‘climate’ indicator in order to better identify, quantify and analyse climate issues in humanitarian action. To understand how to manage the waste generated by humanitarian action, it is first necessary to identify the type of waste generated by the sector. Following a questionnaire developed by URD, packaging is the first concern, followed by electrical waste and electronic equipment. Other types mentioned were: organic, sanitation, construction and medical waste.

“This waste always represents both an environmental and health issue” – Aline Hubert – Groupe URD

The questionnaire also highlighted current waste management practices and the difficulties encountered by the various stakeholders. Waste collection is mainly handled by private actors who transport, incinerate or landfill it. Difficulties linked to the costs of treatment, sorting at source, and lack of space are nevertheless present, making essential the establishement of sustainable solutions following the 5Rs logic: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Return to the earth.

CDCS workshop from the Ministry of European and Foreign affairs. 2022

Waste reduction through sustainable procurement criteria 

Procurement practices for products destined to be sent on emergency humanitarian missions have a considerable role to play in waste and carbon emissions reduction .

“Procurement accounts for between 40% and 80% of the carbon emissions of humanitarian missions” – Samantha Brangeon – JointInitiative

It is therefore essential to have a coordination between the private sector, NGOs and donors to foster and develop more sustainable eco-friendly projects. This starts with more responsible procurement both in terms of quantity, with a better estimation and analysis of the needs on the field, and quality, by favouring suppliers using recyclable materials, avoiding single use. Moreover, encouraging awareness and training of employees at all levels and the enforcement of regulations and legislation on the matter can also have an impact on the way humanitarian actions are conducted.

“There are three key concepts for sustainable procurement: life cycle analysis, total cost of ownership, which includes direct and indirect costs, and end-of-life consideration from the technical specification to the design of activities” – Céline Heim – Action contre la Faim

A sustainable purchase refers not only to the product purchased but also to the delivery and transport to emergency areas.

“In emergency situations, the priority is timely delivery and not necessarily recycling” – Agathe Tiberghien – Alpinter

Despite this, there are actions that can be taken to move towards a sustainable approach as much as possible. For example, Alpinter, a major designer, producer and supplier of equipment to humanitarian organisations around the world, has worked to optimise the wooden pallets put into containers. This way, they managed to transport more products by saving space and loading more into the containers, thereby reducing the number of trucks on the roads. Indeed, by reducing the size of the pallets (75x117cm instead of 80/120cm), the loading capacity of the containers has increased by 25%, reducing the number of containers sent per year by 62.

Wooden pallets  75×117 in a container. Alpinter.

Sustainable procurement therefore requires following the 5Rs logic and adapting it to the different contexts of intervention. This is a lengthy process, but one that must be undertaken in order to address these issues in the long term and thus fill this gap in emergency humanitarian action.

Pooling of waste management 

Efforts to pool waste management are based on a two-fold logic: the understanding that organisations face similar difficulties in terms of waste management, and that waste has a significant environmental and social impact. As a result, pooling allows for common, and therefore, more effective action to minimise negative consequences. It also allows common standards to be established, which could facilitate the development of sustainable projects in the future. Faced with similar problems in waste management in Southern Sudan, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), World food Program (WFP) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have pooled their efforts and established a joint action plan. This collaboration has helped maximise resources on the ground, challenge and improve each other’s practices as well as innovate for more sustainable solutions

“We looked at all the practices currently used by members of a waste management shared initiative group to establish a common solution” – Robert Matheka – International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

In order to maximise this pooling to better manage waste, it is also necessary to call upon local partners who know the field, the administrative regulations and the populations affected. These local partnerships are not only essential for waste management, but can also enable the development of local organisations and actors. This is indeed the case for Africa Ecology, a local association created in 2019, and main partner of Réseau Logistique Humanitaire (RLH), composed of 9 NGOs, in Burkina Faso. Africa Ecology’s mission is to collect waste and raise awareness on sorting and recycling in the country. They collect about 22 tons of waste per year. By establishing a strong partnership, the RLH group has become a major player in the development of Africa Ecology.

“We are bringing a significant number of clients to Africa Ecology, increasing their financial base which allows them to implement more ambitious projects and expand their range of services. They help us to manage our waste, from collection and sorting, to the recovery of waste from RLH member NGOs” – Alexis Ottenwaelter – Humanitarian Logistics Network (RLH)

This partnership not only aims to collect waste, but also to fuel the development of this initiative by diversifying the types of waste treated and increasing Africa Ecology’s collection capacities through new tools. Moreover, RLH’s ambition is to develop the valorisation of the collected waste by encouraging the sale of objects made from recycled materials as well as to extend Africa Ecology’s capacity to the management of electrical and electronic waste. This initiative is important because it is part of a desire to support local actors in developing their activities so that they can eventually become self-sufficient. Thanks to this approach, the specificities of the field, the populations and their respective problems are in the foreground, which allows for a targeted and high-quality intervention.

Therefore, the most important point in waste sharing actions in the humanitarian field is communication. Indeed, communication and transparency between partners is necessary for the development of sustainable and effective joint programmes that meet the needs on the ground. In addition, communication and engagement with local populations is also crucial in the short and long term. The information and knowledge gained from a programme will play a role in both raising awareness and the populations’ agency, by being directly involved in projects.

“The first point of interest is communication: how to collect waste, how to store it, how to treat it and finally how to recycle it. We have established a training centre in the heart of the refugee camp to educate local people on how to manage their own electrical waste. – Alban Aymes – Schneider Electrics

Waste recovery 

Waste recovery is part of the concept of ‘circular economy’ , which implies improving consumer behaviour on the one hand, and adapting the offer proposed by economic actors on the other. This suggests more sustainable purchasing concepts and the design of products in a responsible manner.

“For good recovery, a distinction must be made between the direct production of waste by populations and waste directly linked to humanitarian action. In both cases, the typology of waste is already well known and have the same priority linked to the absolute imperative of separating hazardous waste and favouring sustainable purchases and reuse” – Thierry Meraud – ADEME

Good waste recovery requires the same elements mentioned before, i.e. good communication, solid partnerships with reliable information and overall acceptance by local communities. In an effort to cultivate environmental business in order to create and develop sustainable employment for vulnerable populations, GVD Africa offers professional training on pre-collection, sorting and recovery activities and develops the necessary tools and equipment for waste management. Thanks to their work, GVD has installed 100 waste recovery units in West and Central African countries, including 49 in Niger. Their training programs and equipments underline the importance of distinguishing and taking into account the particularity of each type of waste in the recovery process.

“Plastic waste recovery can be applied in communities in WASH projects, in industry such as energy and raw or secondary material and in cities for the rehabilitation of urban infrastructures. Organic waste is mostly recovered in the agricultural sector” – Moussa Ali Dongo – GVD Niger

Waste recovery is therefore possible but not without constraints. Indeed, the recovery of plastics and organic waste has major obstacles linked to the constraints of the country. For example, in Myanmar, Solidarités International is working in the Sittwe camp in the Rakhine State, which hosts 80 500 displaced Rohingyas, to treat the 60m3 of sludge generated per day. This project started in 2012 by developing a centralised treatment system (the Sludge Treatment System) which now reaches 100,000 people living in 14 camps and using 4,000 latrines. Sludge treatment is essential, particularly in places where access to water, hygiene and health products is limited, as poor treatment can lead to groundwater contamination and the spread of disease. Despite general acceptance by the population, multi-year funding, strong partnerships and the establishment of an on-site analytical laboratory, the management and recovery of sludge in the agricultural sector into compost remains a complex task.

“In Myanmar, we have not yet been able to use treated sludge and sewage in agriculture due to the lack of national standards and limited access to the country. – Alberto Acquistapace – Solidarités International

This highlights an important consideration at all levels: the context in which a programme is implemented plays a major role in the waste management generated on the ground

Sludge treatment centre, Rakhine, Myanmar, 2018 ©Solidarités International

Waste management in humanitarian action poses complex questions to which rapid solutions must be found in order to address global climate issues. This ‘blind spot’ in humanitarian action is prompting a wider reflection on the sector, including the nature of the actions undertaken and their aims. In a world where the demand for humanitarian aid is increasing and climate change is becoming critical, it is essential to bring climate considerations to the forefront of emergency humanitarian action without losing sight of the original purpose of our mission: to help those affected.

Conclusion by Alain Boinet, Solidarités International, Défis Humanitaires.

Annie Evrard asked me to recall how far we have come in waste management. I remember the water canals clogged with waste in Djibouti, Kabul or the mountains of plastic bags in Macedonia during the war in Kosovo. This was not waste produced by humanitarians, but the accelerated growth of international humanitarian action has made the management of its own waste a necessity, a duty even, because we must first “put our own house in order” and not leave our own waste at other people’s homes!

What strikes me at the end of this workshop is the considerable progress made by humanitarians through very concrete and often innovative programmes in many areas, from waste reduction to the pooling of waste management and its recovery. There is no doubt that the momentum is there, but is it on the scale and at the pace of the challenges faced?

This environmental issue has been added to our already long list of obligations, which also lead to more red tape and bureaucracy, at the risk of causing a bottleneck in humanitarian action. Let’s remain reactive, agile, resilient and above all efficient in order to provide access to aid to populations in danger, taking into account the environment as a place to live.

From this workshop, I will retain some priorities among others:

  • The added value of multi-actor partnership between humanitarian NGOs, public authorities and companies, each in its own role and mandate.
  • The positive role of effective, cheap and easy-to-use innovation adapted to the populations and countries concerned.
  • The ability to adapt on a case by case basis and the systematic use of local knowledge and existing capacities.

Let us continue, let us even accelerate, we are on the right track.

Eva Miccolis


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