A row of colorful trash cans next to a wall, showcasing waste management principles.
© Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash.

Waste management principles

The first priority for aid organisations is to cater for the urgent needs of the population affected by a crisis or emergency. Yet, waste needs to be handled timely and in an appropriate manner to avoid creating additional health and environmental risks.  

Why is it important?

It is estimated that globally more than 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste were generated in 2016. This number is expected to grow to 3.40 billion tonnes by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. In low-income countries, the total quantity of waste is even expected to triple by 2050.  The volume, type of waste and collection rates differ starkly by region and by income level. For example, 93% of waste in low-income is disposed of in open dumps, whereas this is the case for only 2% of waste in high-income countries. (1)

Poor waste management does not only have an impact on the environment but can also threaten public health. UN-Habitat found that in areas with no sufficient access to waste management services, the incidence of diarrhoea is twice as high, and acute respiratory infections occur six times more often than in areas with frequent waste collection. (2)

Reducing, sorting, collecting, recycling, and ensuring proper disposal of waste as well as putting in place a waste management plan and monitor waste quantities are therefore important levers to tackle the issue of waste pollution.

What is the solution?

Waste management should follow the waste hierarchy: first, reducing and minimising waste, second, re-using and repairing, third, recycling or composting of waste, followed by energy recovery and, as a last resort, waste disposal (landfill, burial). In emergency situations, it is important to first tackle waste that could pose an immediate risk to the health and safety of affected populations.  

Key facts

0.74 kg

of waste is produced per person per day (3)

Over 90%

In low-income countries, over 90% of waste is not disposed of properly


of global emissions were generated from solid waste treatment and disposal in 2016 (4)

Key solutions

  • #1 Plan & monitor

    Address management of the different types of waste in a waste management plan, notably for hazardous and medical waste. Put in place a basic waste monitoring system, including classification and weighing, to understand the impact of measures and to adapt, if needed.  

  • #2 Avoid & reduce

    Involve colleagues from relevant departments to avoid & reduce waste. Many of the actions related to avoiding waste take place early in the process, such as at the project planning and conception or the procurement phase. Privilege re-usable items, minimize plastic items, choose repairable equipment, to name a few examples. 

  • #3 Sorting & collecting

    Put in place a system to sort and collect waste. Specific solutions are required for different types of waste when it comes to sorting & collecting, notably for hazardous or medical waste. The following phases (4 & 5) will only be possible if collection and sorting are done properly. 

  • #4 Re-use and re-cycle

    Identify waste categories that can be re-used or recycled. Facilitate re-use by putting in place the necessary infrastructure, for example repair shops. Work with local recycling SMEs (Small and Medium Sized Entreprises) and create employment opportunities. Consider influencing and supporting local governments and decision-makers to improve the recycling infrastructure 

  • #5 Treatment & final disposal

    Work with best available technology for the disposal of waste. Identify and use local or regional disposal channels and establish partnerships (e.g., incineration in cement plants). Mutualize specific equipment or process with other actors (NGO’s, health structures, local governments, etc.). 

    Find more about composting here

Success stories

UNDP: Tsunami Recovery Waste Management Programme

The programme was put in place following the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Whilst the short-term goals of the project consisted in debris and rubble clearance, longer term goals regarding sustainable waste management system, local capacity building as well as sustaining livelihoods through waste management activities were part of the project. Through the programme more than one million cubic metres of tsunami waste was cleared, recyclable materials was recovered and used to rehabilitate 100 km of roads and manufacture 12,000 units of furniture, among other. 164 SMEs were created and provided employment opportunities for 2,400 people in waste recycling. Through a cash-for-work scheme, the programme paid the wages for 400,000 days of temporary labour. (5)

DANIDA: Recycling of building waste in Kosovo

It is estimated that more than 120,000 housing units across 29 municipalities were destroyed during the 1999 war in Kosovo, creating up to 10 million tonnes of waste. Through an environmental programme funded by DANIDA, recycled materials were used to build new roads and buildings. (6)

Disaster Waste Recovery: Re-using debris for construction in Haiti

The NGO Disaster Waste Recovery carried out a demolition, debris and solid waste programme in Haiti, removing 130,000 tonnes of debris and re-using three quarters of it for reconstruction and development. In addition, over 110,000 hours of paid work was generated, benefitting the crisis-affected communities. (7)

Tools and good practices

  • IFRC, Managing Solid Waste: Sector-Specific Guidelines for the Red Cross Red Crescent, 2020

    A handbook that provides practical advice to sector practitioners who are not necessarily specialised in waste management. The document contains an extensive list of additional resources

    Read here
  • Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit, Disaster Waste Management Guidelines, 2013

    A guide to waste management in the context of emergencies and disasters

    Read here
  • Oxfam, Technical Briefs

    Oxfam provides a series of technical briefs on the topics of domestic and refugee camp waste management, composting, large-scale environmental clean-up campaigns and hazardous wastes

    Read here
  • EAWAG/SANDEC, Anaerobic Digestion of Biodegradable Solid Waste in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, 2007

    The document gives an overview of existing technologies, presents case studies and provides links to technology providers

    Read here
  • EAWAG/SANDEC, Decentralised Composting for Cities of Low- and Middle-Income Countries. A Users’ Manual, 2006

    The handbook describes approaches and methods of composting on neighbourhood level in small-and middle-scale plants. The reader is led step by step through the planning, implementing and operational stages of a decentralised composting scheme

    Read here

To go further

  • The World Bank, What a Waste 2.0, A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, 2018

    A report with a wealth of data on global waste management. It also includes case studies from around the globe

    Read here
  • UNEP/IETC, Reports on waste management in different regions

    The UNEP International Environmental Technology Centre (IETC) provides access to a number of resources on waste management, with a focus on practices or policies in different regions

    Read here


(1) The World Bank, What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, 2018. Read here

(2) UN-Habitat, Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities: Water and Sanitation in the World’s Cities 2010, 2010. Read here

(3) The World Bank, What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, 2018. Read here

(4) Mainly driven by open dumping and landfill disposal. The World Bank, What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, 2018. Read here

(5) UNDP, Tsunami Recovery Waste Management Programme, 2015. Read here

(6) ProAct Network et al., Planning Centralised Building Waste Management Programmes in Response to Large Disasters, 2010. Read here

(7) Disaster waste recovery – DWR in action, 2014. Read here


Cover photo © Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash.