Photo credit © Aleksandar Pasaric / Pexels

Alternative packaging materials

  • Procurement
  • Packaging

Adequate packaging of raw materials is crucial for humanitarian organisations to safely transport and distribute essential goods such as food, medicine, and clothing to beneficiaries. At the same time, notably plastic packaging may contribute to local environmental degradation when not disposed of properly. Whilst no perfect solution exists, alternative packaging materials are available to reduce plastic pollution and the overall impact of packaging material.

Why is it important?

Humanitarian organisations are often operating in areas with limited or non-existent recycling infrastructure and that are already experiencing environmental degradation. Plastic packaging for goods that humanitarian organisations supply to these areas has the potential to further exacerbate the local plastic pollution problem. The extraction of fossil fuels for plastic production, the production and end-of-life management of plastics also contribute to ocean pollution, ecosystem and human health perturbation, and of course global warming: in 2019, plastics were responsible for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. (1)

The most common plastic packaging types used by humanitarian organisations for the delivery of food aid are Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), e.g. used for oil/water bottles, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used in vegetable oil containers and polypropylene (PP), e.g. used in woven bags for commodities such as rice and sorghum. (2)

What is the solution?

Before considering alternative materials for their plastic packaging, always consider first if the packaging can be eliminated or reduced. Then, adopting more eco-friendly materials can reduce the impact of packaging raw materials in supply chains. Yet, as the Joint Initiative notes: “Although alternatives to plastic may help reduce the plastic pollution problem linked to poor end-of-life management, they should not be considered quick-fix solutions […].” (3) And whilst certain alternative materials have a lesser environmental impact in some areas, they might have a higher impact in others. Also, carefully evaluate biodegradable and bio-sourced alternatives before switching materials: First, biodegradable and bio-sourced plastics do not automatically go together. Second, biodegradable plastics may require specific conditions to effectively degrade. (4)

Key facts


Only 9% of plastics are recycled globally.  (5)


Some 90% of floating marine debris is plastic, of which nearly 62% is food and beverage packaging. (6)

300 million

The Atlantic Ocean receives around 300 million plastic bags annually. (7)

Alternative materials

The document “Alternatives to Conventional Plastics in Packaging” published by the Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management (8) provides insights into various aspects of different packaging materials. The above list is taken from this document. (9)

Photo credit © Mihaela Mela / Pexels

Key actions

  • #1 Make an inventory and prioritise

    Conduct an inventory of the current packaging materials used by the concerned organisation. This includes identifying the types of materials, quantities, and their environmental impact. Focus on items that are sourced in large quantities first, then access the recycling capacities available in your area of operation.

  • #2 Assess packaging needs

    Assess the specific packaging needs for the identified items. Consider the requirements for product protection, transportation, storage, and distribution while minimising waste generation. Consider reusing packaging when feasible.

  • #3 Engage with suppliers

    Evaluate alternative packaging materials and methods to reduce environmental impact in close collaboration with suppliers and eventually local producers. Consider materials with a lower carbon footprint, renewable resources, recyclability, composability, and reduced energy consumption.

  • #4 Switch from multi to mono-material packaging

    The combination of multiple materials, e.g. combining plastic and aluminium layers, are economically, and in some cases even technically, not recyclable. (10) Switch to mono-materials, wherever possible.

  • #5 Consider adapting the product format

    Explore possibilities to changing the product format to allow for alternative material use. For example, switch from liquid cleaning products to solid, concentrated products. The approach also avoids shipping water, thereby reducing transport emissions.

  • #6 Run a pilot

    Test the identified alternative packaging solutions on a smaller scale to assess their feasibility, functionality, and effectiveness. Consider product compatibility, durability, safety, and cost implications.

  • #7 Implement and evaluate

    Once a viable alternative packaging solution is identified, plan for its implementation across your organisation’s operations. Regularly evaluate and monitor the implemented packaging solution’s performance. Collect feedback from stakeholders, assess its environmental impact, and make necessary adjustments to optimise sustainability efforts further.

  • #8 Collaborate

    Engage with other humanitarian organisations, industry experts, universities and sustainable packaging initiatives to share knowledge, experiences, and best practices. Team up with other organisations to jointly request improvements to packaging materials from key suppliers. Share your success stories with CAA.

To consider

  • Potential co-benefits

    • Reduced local pollution when using reusable packaging, home-compostable, or materials that naturally degrade
    • Employee engagement: promoting sustainability engages employees, fosters a culture of sustainability, and increases job satisfaction.
    • Reduced transport cost and emissions when making changes to the product format itself (e.g. concentrated, solid product instead of liquid product)
  • Success conditions

    • Make reducing the impact of packaging a strategic issue
    • Designate a responsible person or department to implement the sustainable packaging strategy
    • Ensure good knowledge of the specific packaging requirements
    • Engage with suppliers to better understand the possibilities and constraints when changing materials
    • If sufficient data is available, set a plastic packaging goal (e.g. % of recycled content, % of using alternative materials)
    • Involving staff from the quality and procurement department
  • Prerequisites & specificities

    • Overview of type of packaging and the materials used
    • Availability: some alternatives are at early development stages and might not yet be broadly available or adapted to the specific humanitarian context
  • Potential Risks

    • Alternative materials might come with a price add-on
    • Biodegradable materials might have a shorter life cycle, leading to reduced shelf life
    • Quality issues or damage to items or food if alternative material is not adequate

Success stories

ICRC in Afghanistan reduces plastic waste and improves sustainability with cardboard

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. Read more here.

UNHCR reduces plastic waste in core relief items packaging

The UNHCR aims to reduce plastic in packaging of core relief items (CRI) by 20%. UNHCR implements a holistic strategy, focussing on reducing the amount of packaging used, recycling and optimising packaging. Some examples of successful changes include using recycled cardboard with logos from water-based ink, removing plastic laminate and film from cardboard boxes and using paper sheets instead of single-use plastic for kitchen sets. Read more here.

Tools and good practices

  • A list of alternative packaging material for non-food items

    UK HSOT suppliers of non-food items (NFI) items must ensure that the packaging is free from single-use plastic. In their guidance note for suppliers, UK HSOT provides a list of alternative packaging material that should be used instead.

    Read here
  • Flexi-Hex packaging sleeve

    The Flexi-Hex® is an innovative, protective packaging sleeve made from 100% recycled paper that helps protect fragile products in transit. Flexi-Hex is an alternative for unsustainable bubble wrap and air filled plastic.

    Read here
  • Everdrop cleaning and laundry products

    By offering cleaning and laundry products in a concentrated, solid format, the startup everdrop does not only avoid single-use plastic packaging, but also reduces emissions from transport.

    Read here
  • Packaging made from mushrooms

    The company Ecovative uses mushroom mycelium, a natural and biodegradable alternative to plastic-based materials to create products, from packaging to building materials.

    Read here
  • Packaging made from seaweed-based plastic

    The plastic, called "Agile", is made from seaweed called Ascophyllum nodosum. It is biodegradable and home-compostable, meaning bacteria and fungi can break it down outside industrial composting conditions. The packaging is already available for catering services in the UK.

    Read here
  • Packaging factsheets, The Food Packaging Forum, 2023

    The Food Packaging Forum provides information and resources on food packaging, including a number of packaging fact sheets summarising the environmental impacts of different types of packaging.

    Read here

To go further

  • Alternatives to conventional (petroleum-based) plastics in packaging, Joint Initiative, 2023

    The document provides an overview of different packaging materials, such as biodegradable plastics, recyclable plastics, paper and cardboard, and glass. It concludes by calling for more research and development into sustainable packaging alternatives.

    Read here
  • Drowning in plastics, UNEP, 2021

    Chapter 19 of the report discusses the pros and cons of biodegradable plastics and bioplastics.

    Read here
  • Are Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics Really Sustainable?, WWF, 2022

    Biodegradable and compostable plastics are often marketed as environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional plastics. However, these plastics may only sometimes break down as intended and can still have negative environmental impacts.

    Read here


(1) OECD, Plastic leakage and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing. Read here

(2) Joint Initiative, Alternatives to conventional (petroleum-based) plastics in packaging, Joint Initiative, 2023. Read here

(3) Joint Initiative, Alternatives to conventional (petroleum-based) plastics in packaging, Joint Initiative, 2023. Read here

(4) UNEP, Drowning in plastics, 2021 (EN), Chapter 19. Read here

(5) UN Environment Programme, 2019, Plastic recycling: an underperforming sector ripe for a remake. Read here

(6) World Bank, 2018, What a Waste 2.0:  A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, p. 174. Read here

(7) TheWorldCounts, 2023. Read here

(8) Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management, 2019, Alternatives to Conventional (Petroleum-based) Plastics in Packaging, p5. Read here

(9) Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management, 2019, Alternatives to Conventional (Petroleum-based) Plastics in Packaging. Read here

(10) Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics & catalysing action, 2017. Read here