Packaging with a logo on it.
© Marcell Viragh/Unsplash.


Plastic pollution has become one of the major environmental issues of our times. Plastic waste can now be found in the most remote areas of our planet. Reducing the carbon and environmental impact of packaging, especially single-use plastic, constitutes a key element of any environmental roadmap.

Organisations can eliminate unnecessary packaging, especially single-use plastic, use alternative packaging materials, innovate to reuse and repurpose packaging and invest in local collection and recycling facilities.

Why is tackling packaging important?

Aid organisations rely on packaging for the transport of food and nonfood items to beneficiariesplastic in particular. Plastic packaging is cheap, light and versatile and became a dominant material of our economy. Yet, the negative impact of plastic debris in the environment is widely documented. Plastics are littering beaches, clogging up municipal sewage systems and are found in the deep sea, as well as the most remote mountain areas (1). Due to their small size and low value, plastic packaging is particularly prone to end up in the environment and many countries lack the infrastructure to collect and recycle plastic waste. In addition, greenhouse gas emissions are released through the extraction and refining of fossil fuels, the raw material for plastics, as well as through the energy-intensive process of plastic production and the incineration of plastic waste.

A stack of cardboard packaging boxes on a pallet.
© Alfonso Navarro/Unsplash

Key facts

5.5 million tonnes

Every year, in France, 5.5 million tonnes of packaging material is used, amounting to 83 kg/person/year and 6 packaging items/person/day (2)


Packaging represents 26% of the volume of plastics used (3)


More plastics were produced between 2015 and 2017 than in the previous 50 years (4)

By 2050

Oceans could contain more plastics than fish (by weight) in a business-as-usual scenario (5)

Key solutions

  • #1 Eliminate unnecessary or problematic packaging

    Reduce (single-use) packaging to the minimum and  eliminate problematic materials. Discover more

  • #2 Adapt the product format

    Reduce packaging by adapting the product format.

  • #3 Opt for reusable packaging

    Avoid single-use packaging and switch to reusable packaging.

  • #4 Repurpose packaging

    Re-design or re-use packaging for a different purpose. Discover more

  • #5 Reduce the impact of packaging raw materials

    Switch from fossil-based virgin feedstocks to recycled or renewable materials.

  • #6 Choose recyclable packaging material

    Use recyclable or compostable packaging material.

  • #7 Invest in recycling and collection infrastructure

    Facilitate and invest in local collection and recycling.

Success stories

Resolution to end plastic pollution

In March 2022, Heads of State, Ministers of Environment and other representatives from UN members endorsed a resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal (6)

Plastic waste action in 60 countries

Between 2015 and 2019, over 60 countries have introduced bans and levies to curb single-use plastic waste (7)

The 81 members of the European Plastics Pact have committed to a set of ambitious 2025 targets

  • Make all plastic packaging and single-use plastic products reusable where possible and in all cases recyclable 
  • Reduce the need for virgin plastic products and packaging by at least 20% 
  • Increase the collection, sorting and recycling capacity of all plastics used in packaging and single-use products in participating countries by at least 25 percentage points 
  • Boost the use of recycled plastics as much as possible, with an average of at least 30% recycled plastics across single-use plastic products and packaging (8)

The Joint Initiative on Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management

Convenes humanitarian actors from the UN system, NGOs, donors and academics to find and implement solutions for the packaging waste challenge of the humanitarian sector (9)

ICRC, Replacing plastic with cardboard in NFI distributions

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. (10)

ACTED Lebanon: A holistic approach to reducing and managing waste

In 2017, ACTED identified that approximately 60-70% of its carbon footprint resulted from its supply chain. In line with its 3 Zero World vision – Zero Exclusion, Zero Carbon and Zero Poverty – ACTED looked for ways to introduce sustainability measures into procurement for office supplies and programs. This case study charts ACTED Lebanon’s efforts to lower its carbon footprint while also reducing local pollution caused by the country’s low waste management capacity through improvements to its packaging. (11)

Tools and good practices

  • Joint Initiative, Guidance Note on Regulatory and Legislative Frameworks for Humanitarian Workers

    This guidance note provides information on existing frameworks governing plastics and how they are likely to evolve. The note also aims to support awareness-raising efforts and changes in procurement practices. It provides further resources on specific national legislations.

    Read here
  • Joint Initiative, 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. Access webinar recording, presentation and outcome document.

    Read here
  • Alternatives to Conventional (Petroleum-based) Plastics in Packaging: Definitions, Benefits and Challenges for the Humanitarian Sector , Joint Initiative, 2023 (EN)

    The paper aims to provide information and points for reflection, to help both procurement and program staff make more informed decisions on sustainable alternatives to plastics.

    Read here
  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Upstream Innovation. A Guide to Packaging Solutions.

    A guide to help organisations innovate towards achieving their circular economy goals for packaging. Whilst the guide is made for the FMCG sector, some of the products are equally used by aid organisations and the provided examples can serve as inspiration.

    Read here
  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation Learning Hub

    A series of learning tools to increase the understanding of plastic pollution, a circular economy for plastic and potential solutions to the problem.

    Read here

To go further

  • Joint Initiative, Packaging, Plastics and Climate Change (Infosheet)

    An overview of the impact of plastics, and in particular packaging, on climate change.

    Read here
  • Heinrich Böll Foundation/Break Free From Plastic, Plastic Atlas, 2019

    The document provides facts and figures about the growing plastic problem. It also provides arguments as to why a rapid reduction in plastic production and consumption is required.

    Read here
  • UNEP, From Pollution to Solution. A Global Assessment of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution, 2021

    A publication with key facts and figures on plastic pollution in the oceans.

    Read here
  • UNEP, Drowning in Plastics. Marine Litter and Plastic Waste Vital Graphics.

    A publication with infographics on plastic waste and marine plastic pollution.

    Read here


(1) Adane, 2011, Survey on the usage of plastic bags, their disposal and adverse impacts on environment: A case study in Jimma City, Southwestern Ethiopia, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Sciences Vol. 3(8) pp. 234-248; Chiba, 2018, Human footprint in the abyss: 30 year records of deep-sea plastic debris, Marine Policy, Vol. 96, pp. 204–212; Allen, 2019, Atmospheric transport and deposition of microplastics in a remote mountain catchment, Nature Geoscience, Vol. 12, pp. 339–344.

(2) CITEO, Panorama des emballages ménagers en France, 2022. Read here.

(3) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics & Catalysing Action, 2017. Read here.

(4) Geyer, Jambeck, and Law, 2017, Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made, Sci. Adv., 3 (7), Article 1700782.

(5) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Catalysing Action, 2017. Read here.

(6) UNEP, Historic day in the campaign to beat plastic pollution: Nations commit to develop a legally binding agreement, 2022. Read here.

(7) UN Principles for Responsible Investment, The Plastic Landscape: Regulations, Policies and Influencers, 2019. Read here.

(8) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The European Plastics Pact. Read here.

(9) Environmental Emergencies Centre, Joint Initiative on Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management. Read here.

(10) ICRC Afghanistan Pilot: Replacing Plastic with cardboard in NFI Distributions. Read here

(11) ACTED Lebanon: A holistic approach to reducing and managing waste. Read here

Cover photo © Marcell Viragh/Unsplash.

Alternative packaging materials

Alternative packaging materials

Repurpose packaging

Repurpose packaging

Eliminate unnecessary or problematic plastic packaging

Eliminate unnecessary or problematic plastic packaging