Why is it important?

A catastrophic event will have severe impacts on waste collection systems. If these were weak to begin with it may completely overwhelm or decimate them. People in the affected area or in a settlement however, will continue to live and produce waste. If this is not collected it will produce significant public and environmental health concerns

Solid waste is produced from organic food waste produced within households or businesses; from non-organic packaging of consumables or equipment; from toxic or hazardous chemical waste from households, businesses or medical services within the settlement. During the initial stages of disaster relief solid waste management is a prominent issue due to the need for debris clean-up in the aftermath of a disaster (see Construction), due to the need for emergency medical services which produce large amounts of hazardous waste (needles, chemicals, used bandages, human waste), and due to the large amounts of packaging contained in emergency supplies (food, blankets, fuel, clothing etc.).

There are two streams of waste management that a humanitarian aid programme with need to deal with:

  • disaster waste produced by the disaster itself; and
  • normal waste produced by the activities of people and operations of the programme.
Solid Waste Checklist

  • Have you developed a robust waste management strategy that adopts the reduce, re-use, repair and recycle hierarchy?
  • Do you understand the implications of inappropriate waste disposal (legal, environmental, health)?
Case Study

Environmental Impact

Environmental degradation

If waste streams cannot be recycled or re-used they must be disposed of. Organic and non-organic waste left unsorted and untreated is a source of pollution for both land and water and a risk to public health. As litter it becomes a point source for pollution due to the production of leachate, can attract vermin to the site, and has an impact on natural habitats and contributing to environmental quality. Non-organic waste, such as packaging of food and non-food items (NFI), will not decompose in a landfill, rather will take up space and potentially create tensions with neighbouring communities also depending on those facilities.

Toxic waste can be produced from chemicals used to control pathogens (by killing bacteria, insects etc.), hence their storage and disposal poses a risk of point source pollution. Toxic substances can also be present in the slurry produced from wastewater treatment, or can occur naturally in groundwater (such as arsenic or fluoride). Inappropriate disposal of chemicals will increase strain on local environment, may reduce agricultural yield, increase tensions with host population/government; and contribute to further disaster risks.

More Environmental Degradation Info
Environmental Degradation

A break down synopsis of the entire degradation section would be useful here.

Resource depletion

Too much packaging takes up valuable space and decreases the number of units of material that can be transported in one vehicle. Unnecessary packaging that cannot be recycled is a waste of resources through its entire life cycle from manufacturing to transport, to disposal, wasting precious fuel, materials and water.

More Resource Depletion
Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is the goal of minimising the amount of energy needed to to do a specific task. If using a fossil fuel derived fuel source this directly reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere. Whereas if using energy derived from renewable sources this reduces the load on the energy producing system. A classic example is that of using insulation to reduce the amount of energy needed to heat a building.

Increasing energy efficiency reduces demands on local energy supplies such as forestry (mitigating deforestation) or imported fuel sources. Energy is often derived from fossil fuels, using large amounts of energy increases greenhouse gase emissions.

Greenhouse gase emissions

Organic waste discarded or sent to a designated landfill site will decompose producing the greenhouse gas methane and causing air pollution and unpleasant living conditions for nearby shelters.

More Greenhouse info
Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A greenhouse gas is a gas in an atmosphere that absorbs and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range. This process is the fundamental cause of the greenhouse effect which maintains the stable temperature of the Earth.

Since the Industrial Revolution there has been a 40% increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which is believed to be contributing to a change in the Earth’s climatic systems. Changes in this system is increasing the vulnerability of many populations.

Mitigation Strategies

Waste disposal strategies should be included in logistics operations in co-ordination with relevant agencies. Appropriate waste collection reduces public health issues, can be a form of income generation for people and demonstrates that organisations are working to benefit the population. In designing appropriate strategies, the following should be taken into account:

  • Already available means for waste collection;
  • Accessibility of waste collection points;
  • Waste disposal procedure;
  • Informing the behaviour of waste producers
  • Involving affected population in system design;
  • Segregation of waste in to various waste streams and treating appropriately; and
  • Promotion of reduction, re-use and recycling of materials
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Material and goods selection, use and waste management should try and maximise on the reduction of materials and food consumed, on the reuse of packaging and materials, or the recycling of these to produce useful products. An added benefit of this is that it reduces costs in procurement, transport and disposal.

When recyclable waste streams are properly managed, they can provide valuable income-generation for the affected population and recovered material for programmes. When planning recycling activities the following should be taken into account:

  • waste type and quantity;
  • potential capital to be regained from waste streams, such as metals, plastics, etc;
  • environmental, and health and safety considerations of collecting and sorting waste;
  • intermediate storage needs;
  • recycling process and employment opportunities; and
  • incentives for affected population to partake in a recycling scheme.

When dealing with organic waste, the following should be taken into account:

  • Assessment of the amount of organic material that is likely to be produced;
  • Sustainable methods of disposing of organic waste;
  • Methods for biological decomposition of waste; and
  • Strategies for turning organic waste into useful products (e.g. energy, compost)

When procuring equipment, the following should be taken into account:

  • Application of green (public) procurement rules;
  • Selection of equipment according to lifespan and consumption;
  • Consideration of life-cycle costs of procurement including acquisition, consumption, repair/ replacement and disposal. Equipment which has a high consumption rate and/or a short life span will increase programme costs, hence factoring this in to procurement ensures reduction of both cost and waste.
Toxic/hazardous waste

When dealing with toxic or hazardous waste, it is important to consider the following.

  • Regulations regarding the storage and disposal of toxic chemicals should be consulted. If these are not present, relevant guidance from an organisation’s home country could be consulted;
  • A process to estimate chemical content and toxicity (both pre and post treatment) of contaminated water; and
  • Appropriate disposal facilities for hazardous chemicals, including incineration and safe removal of sharps from medical waste.
Landfill waste

Waste disposal is an expensive and vitally necessary exercise without which public and environmental health will be severely affected. It can also create employment opportunities and appropriate implementation will mitigate negative impacts on the area, improving relations with local populations and government. For non-recyclable, non-organic waste the use of a landfill site is still necessary to ensure safe removal of waste from the settlement. When allocating a land for landfill, the following should be considered:

  • Waste quantity;
  • The amount of land needed and available – taking into consideration possible strain on existing resources or landfill sites of host communities/ government;
  • Environmental and logistical considerations for site selection;
  • Whether the site is needed as intermediate storage or as a more permanent controlled landfill?
  • Available means for construction and operation?

A landfill site then needs to be designed such that it has the features of:

  • Impermeable soil;
  • Rainwater draining;
  • Leachate draining;
  • Leachate treatment;
  • Daily cover; and
  • Gas extraction and possible use as a fuel.

Additional Resources

Global Wash Cluster – Disaster Waste Management.

Shelter Cluster – Quick guide to post disaster debris management.

United Nations Environment Programme & Groupe URD – Module 5: Waste management.

UNEP’s Mainstreaming the environment in humanitarian action – Emergency debris and waste section of

The Basel convention – Hazardous wastes and guidelines on hazardous waste management.

The Stockholm convention – Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).

Practical Action – Waste Management.

Proact – Brief technical guide to building waste and Brief technical guide to asbestos.

From URD/UNEP Training material: