Recycling waste
Etienne Girardet/Unsplash

Recycling waste in developing countries

Recycling waste in contexts with limited waste management infrastructure

  • Waste
  • Aid
  • Packaging
  • plastic
  • recycling

When waste can’t be avoided or reduced any further, recycling is key to reduce local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from landfilling or incineration. In many developing countries and humanitarian settings, waste recycling opportunities exist and must be explored.

Why is it important?

Waste generation is increasing across the world and is expected to reach 3.4 billion tons per year by 2050. (1) Waste landfilling generates methane emissions (CH4) while incineration liberates CO2, in various proportion according to the technics used. Furthermore, the dumping of waste without treatment pollutes lands, water, ocean, air and affects biodiversity. This is a particular challenge in regions where waste management infrastructures are dysfunctional or not available 

What is the solution?

Recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions, local contamination of soil, water resources and air. Recycling waste in contexts where the waste management system is not fully operational is possible. It requires proper information and adaptation.

In most contexts, a local waste recycling economy exists, through informal sector like local waste collectors and associations involved in upcycling, or through formal recycling companies. Depending on the context, recycling can have different meanings: manufacturing materials to make another product (ex: recycling virgin paper into recycled paper), making handicrafts, exporting waste to another country so that it can be manufactured (ex: plastic bottle flakes) etc.  

The solution starts with understanding the type of waste that can be recycled, the existing network, capacities and opportunities. Then, consider creating bridges and eventually seek partners to fill gaps. Last, organise the waste collection, sorting, storing according to the treatment identified. Of course, avoid or reduce the waste that cannot be locally recycled. 

For headquarters of organisations based in the “Global North”, recyclable waste streams are easily available and could be systematically integrated into waste management practices.

See dedicated factsheet for waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

Points of attention

Select the material used with recycling in mind. Not all materials are recyclable and actually recycled.

Key facts

1300 MtCO2e

Post-consumer waste contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 (<5% total GHG). (7)


Less than 10% of the plastic that has ever been produced has been actually recycled. (8)

70 to 90%

Recycling rate of iron and steel. (9)


Average global paper recycling rate. (10)


1,8 Billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions generated by plastics in 2019, reaching 3.4% of global emissions, with 90% of these emissions coming from their production and conversion from fossil fuels. (11)

Materials such as carboard, paper, aluminium and steel can usually be recycled.
Jan van der Wolf/Pexels

Key actions

  • #1 Assess

    Assess local recycling opportunities (see environment ministry or humanitarian logistics clusters, but also informal sector like individual collectors and associations). Identify recyclable items using Resin Identification Codes (12). A global database (13) on formal recyclers has also been developed which can help you identify which company you can partner with, while seeking other actors locally.

  • #2 Procure items that can be recycled

    Integrate recycling information in procurement processes. Avoid non-recyclable items that will end up in landfill or incinerators. Choose plastic items indicating the Resin identification codes (14). Prefer brown, recycled carboard/paper instead of white (bleached) ones. Avoid single-use plastic.

  • #3 Sort and store recyclables

    Sort recyclable wastes as recommended by recycling companies and regulations.  Use different types of disposal containers and encourage their use. Group and store wastes with other partners to reach larger quantities collected at once.

  • #4 Pre-processing

    Pre-process the waste as recommended by the recycling companies: remove labels, and wash, compact, bale, or shred recyclable items accordingly. It requires equipment, time, and space, but it will increase the value and possibility to generate income for the informal sector.

  • #5 Develop partnerships with recyclers

    Establish partnerships with local recyclers, whether they are informal waste collectors, resellers or formal companies. Very few recyclers will cover the whole range of recyclable waste, so specific partnerships for each material may need to be established accordingly.

  • #6 Optimise storage and transport

    Mutualise storage/transport of recyclable waste with other organisations.

    Set a reverse logistic system to organise the collection and shipment back to recycling/reuse or disposal facilities). Include it in the budget. Read UNHRC study (15) on solar lantern recycling providing operational cost estimates.

  • #7 Inform and train teams and partners

    Make sure the staff in general, and cleaning personnel and purchasers in particular, are well informed in how to recognise recyclable items from non-recyclable items and are confident in sorting them accordingly.

To consider

  • Potential co-benefits

    • Possible informal sector revenue and development of a circular economy. (16)
    • Economy of raw materials
  • Success conditions

    • Check recycling companies regularly to avoid corrupted or other unethical practices (child labour/uncontrolled landfill)
    • Sort and store waste properly – companies are more likely going to collecting recyclables.
    • Dedicate time, storage space and equipment (machinery to pre-process, containers, etc).
  • Prerequisites & specificities

    • Recycling is context specific: check the existing market, local environmental legislation and waste management capacities: one item may therefore be recycled in one country and not in another.
  • Potential risks

    • Poor working conditions, health and safety risks for workers of recycling companies. (See WREC quick assessment checklist from the Tools paragraph to understand what issues to consider (17).
    • Recycling process can generate pollution from poor wastewater management (18) and require large amount of energy or water (19).

Success stories

WFP: Transforming 68 tons of plastic pallets into washing basins

In Ethiopia, WFP transforms broken PP pallets used for food distribution into washing basins. Explore it here.

WFP: Recycling of 1 million PP bags into unbranded bags for the local market

Since 2019, WFP has an agreement in Kenya with a firm that recycles WFP PP bags into new unbranded bags, composed of 50% recycled material, for use in the local market. Watch this video or explore ECHO’s Compendium of good practices for a greener humanitarian response.

Palladium reduces and replaces packaging with 100% recyclable materials

Palladium stopped using packaging for 5 out of 11 items they procure, then they reduced the others to low-carbon, recyclable or reusable materials like cloth, paper, cardboard. The remaining plastic that could not be avoided or replaced is now improved as recyclable plastic. Learn more here.

ICRC and Kenyan Red Cross: Recycling Plastic waste in a refugee camp

In Dadaab refugee camp (Kenya), the ICRC and the Kenyan Red Cross invested in a plastic shredder which turned plastic waste into granules. Plastic waste was collected in the camp, pre-processed and sold to recycling companies in Nairobi. In addition to reducing local pollution, this helped generated income – for refugees and host communities. Read more here.

Tools and good practices

  • Mapping of waste management facilities, Logistic cluster

    Logistics Cluster keeps an updated map of waste management and recyclers facilities worldwide.

    Explore here
  • Waste management and recycling assessment guidance (WREC), Logistic Cluster, April 2023

    The Logistics Cluster is a coordination forum of the United Nations, providing logistic information and tools for humanitarian agencies. See annex II Waste Management and Recycling Questionnaire from its Waste management and RECycling (WREC) assessment guidance.

    Learn more here
  • Template Waste Management and recycling assessment, Logistic Cluster, 2022

    This questionnaire guides you to assess the existing recycling and waste management facilities in your country of intervention.

    Explore here
  • Options for reuse, repurposing and recycling Humanitarian packaging, Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste, June 2023

    The Joint Initiative for Sustainable Humanitarian Assistance Packaging Waste Management is a project funded by USAID uniting 21 humanitarian stakeholders to reduce the negative environmental impact of humanitarian action, particularly by tackling the issue of packaging waste. They propose alternatives to plastic and recycling options.

    Learn more here

To go further

  • Scrap dealers help humanitarian organisations to collect recyclable

    How humanitarian organisations engaged scrap dealers to collect recyclable materials in Bangladesh, contributing to reduce the negative environmental impact of the humanitarian response.

    Learn more
  • Recycling technics: a possible danger for health and environment

    Poor or inadequate waste management in developing countries affects the environment, population health, and sustainable development.

    Learn more
  • Informal sector: an effective recycling actor, with a cost for health and environment

    The effectiveness of waste recycling by informal sector in developing countries, and its cost for human and planetary health.

    Learn more


(1) World Bank (2019), “What a waste : A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management by 2050”. Read here.

(2) Polyethylene terephtalate – see guidance on the different types of plastics used in humanitarian settings here.

(3) High density polyethylene.

(4) Polypropylene.

(5) Low density polyethylene.

(6) Petsko, Emily (11 March 2020). “Recycling Myth of the Month: Those numbered symbols on single-use plastics do not mean ‘you can recycle me'”. Read here.

(7) IPCC report 2006, AR4, Work group 3, chapter 10, p.587. Read here.

(8) UNEP (2021), From Pollution to Solutions: A global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution. Read here.

(9) UNEP (2011) “Recycling rate of metals: a status report”. Read here.

(10) European Paper Recycling 2022. Read here.

(11) Plastic leakage and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing. Read here.

(12) Joint initiative for sustainable humanitarian assistance packaging waste management (dec 2023), Properties of Five Types of Plastic Packaging Used in Humanitarian Assistance and the Impact of Plastics on Human Health, Joint initiative for sustainable humanitarian assistance packaging waste management. Read here.

(13) Logistic cluster, WREC Waste management facilities mapping. Read here.

(14) Mama Mundo Inc , 2019, How can I tell what type of plastic something is made of, and if that plastic is safe?, Life without Plastic. Read here.

(15) E-waste management action plan for the collection and recycling of solar lanterns in UNHCR displaced persons settlements, Dec 2022, German Institute for Applied Ecology. Read here.

(16) Wilson, Velis and Cheesman (2006) The role of the informal sector recycling in the waste management in developing countries. Read here.

(17) Waste management and recycling assessment guidance (see annex II Waste Management and Recycling Questionnaire).

(18) Yang H., Huang X., Thompson J., Folwer R. 2014 “Soil Pollution: Urban Brownfields”. Science, Vol 344, Issue 6185 pp. 691-692. Read here.

(19) Van Ewijk, S., Stegemann, J.A. & Ekins, P. 2021 “Limited climate benefits of global recycling of pulp and paper”. Nat Sustain 4, 180–187 (2021). Read here.

Cover photo: Etienne Girardet/Unsplash