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Humanitarian waste: the importance of being exemplary

At the instigation of the Humanitarian Environment Network, Groupe URD’s Haiti Observatory carried out a study, in partnership with CEFREPADE, on NGO waste prevention and management practices in Haiti. Aid organisations produce waste which can be harmful for the environment if it is not managed appropriately (used motor oil, electronic goods, medical waste, etc.), which is often the case in countries where operations take place. This article presents the main findings of the study.

Taking environmental impact into account in the planning and implementation of aid programmes is a major quality issue which the humanitarian sector, the United Nations [1] and funding agencies have been tackling for 7-8 years. In a report by the Joint Environment Unit [2] in August 2014, UNEP and OCHA warned of the need for international organizations to integrate environmental considerations as a cross-cutting issue in order to improve the effectiveness and quality of programmes. More specifically, the question of waste produced as part of humanitarian operations (functioning and programmes) is a recurring issue which the sector faces and is trying to solve. Aid organizations produce waste which can be harmful to the environment if it is not managed properly (used motor oil, electronic waste, medical waste, etc.), as is often the case in countries where operations take place.

At the instigation of the Humanitarian Environment Network [3], the Groupe URD Haiti Observatory, in partnership with CEFREPADE, therefore conducted a study which aimed to review NGO practices in terms of prevention and management of waste in Haiti. This article presents the main results of the study.

As in many countries in the Global South, the question of waste is unfortunately not seen as a priority by public decision-makers in Haiti. The waste management system is characterized by the total absence of any treatment whatsoever for household or dangerous waste. Waste is buried in an anarchic manner in one of the only [4] waste disposal sites in the country (the open air site of Truitier) or simply left in unauthorized dumps or the different ravines in the city, which has produced an unprecedented level of soil pollution. Legally, there is no outline law or supervisory agency responsible for waste management [5].

Faced with this context, in keeping with the principle of ‘Do No Harm’, NGOs and other organizations involved in the reconstruction, have a responsibility to reduce the amount of waste that they produce to a minimum and to improve how it is managed so that it is environmentally acceptable.

However, apart from medical waste, for which NGOs have put in place management systems [6], the study shows that the issue of waste is not taken into account a great deal in the running of relief and development programmes. NGOs are generally not very aware of the waste that they produce or the way in which they are managed, beyond the contract that they have with the local collection companies. Indeed, the links between NGOs and private recycling initiatives which have been developed since 2010 are more or less non-existent. Lack of time or competencies in this area were identified as obstacles to the development of waste prevention and management strategies.

Yet, there are opportunities for recycling in Haiti which aid organisations should take advantage of. A large amount of both non-dangerous waste (paper/card/plastic/metal/aluminium, etc.) and dangerous waste (used motor oil and waste electronic goods) can be recycled in Haiti (see summary table for types of waste and location of companies). Private recycling companies have collection centres throughout the city of Port-au-Prince and also in the main provincial towns (Les Cayes, le Cap Haïtien, Gonaïves, Jacmel, etc.). The Jean-Christophe Fernandes recycling centre in Cité Soleil, run by Athlétique d’Haïti, is also a possible alternative to transporting NGO waste to Truitier waste disposal site [7]. Waste is sorted to then be recycled as compost or briquettes to replace charcoal, or to be sold.

In a context where waste processing is in its infancy, it is also necessary for NGOs to reduce the quantity of waste that they produce and to think about the materials and packaging that they use in their programmes (training and distribution, for example). If we take the example of expanded polystyrene, which has been banned from being imported or used for 2 years, we saw that aid organizations continue to use it: the food boxes which clutter up the ravines and canals of the city continue to be used during NGO training courses and by NGO staff for lunches. This is worrying ethically and raises questions about the participation of NGOs in the parallel, illegal market in expanded polystyrene, whereas “biodegradable” or reusable alternatives are available in the country (even though these are sometimes more expensive and less widely available).

NGOs also need to think about their responsibilities with regard to the waste they produce over and above what is visible: the used motor oil from their vehicles or the packaging distributed to beneficiary communities are examples of waste which NGOs do not currently deal with to a great extent.

The implementation of preventive policies and appropriate management systems nevertheless implies additional costs and a specific form of logistical organisation. Materials which are less harmful for the environment (e.g. paper vs. plastic) can, indeed, be more expensive and the transportation of recyclable waste to recycling units can be more complicated. But in order for aid organizations to be exemplary and transparent in their actions, they need to take this issue into account from planning to implementation. This will increase the quality of their programmes and help to make them more accepted in the areas where they are present.

Technical solutions need to be developed and adapted to the local context. But above all, they need to be part of a regulatory context which would also allow them to be taken into account institutionally in order to allow long-term changes in practices.

Samantha Brangeon

[1] http://www.greeningtheblue.org

[2] Joint OCHA/UNEP unit in charge of analysing the links between the environment and humanitarian action: http://www.unocha.org/what-we-do/coordination-tools/environmental-emergencies

[3] Network created in 2012 under the impulse of Groupe URD, whose members include Solidarités International, ACF, the French Red Cross, MDM, Triangle. The aim of the network is to promote environmental considerations within these individual organizations and throughout the sector as a whole.

[4] Another dump was created as part of a project to support the inter-communal authority of Palmes. This was funded by VNG International, a group of Dutch municipal authorities, and was inaugurated in December 2014.

[5] The collection rate is estimated to be 50%. Waste is collected by the SMCRS and 12 private operators which are used by the wealthier households, companies and NGOs. A 1989 decree separates the responsibility for collecting and gathering waste, the former being the responsibility of the Service Métropolitain de Collecte des Résidus Solides (SMCRS), and the latter being the responsibility of municipal authorities. This situation makes it difficult to organize an appropriate waste management system.

[6] Incineration/Export.

[7] For more information about this platform: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=fatra+cefrepade
NGOs have to negotiate transportation and payment methods with Athlétique d’Haïti and CEFREPADE (the price depends on the volume and varies between 100 and 500 USD per month).