Colorful potted plants repurposed on a wooden wall.
© Bernard Hermant/Unsplash.

Repurpose packaging

  • Packaging
  • Aid
  • Waste

Re-using packaging for a different purpose does not only address the waste challenge, but also provides additional advantages to beneficiaries. Aid organisations can support the repurposing of packaging by redesigning packaging and actively encouraging giving it a second life.

Repurposing refers to giving a second life to packaging material, using it for a different usage than the original one. There are a number of examples of beneficiaries repurposing packaging: using grain bags, jerry cans or plastic containers to hold water or food (1), using polywoven bags to grow plants (2) or turning cardboard boxes into furniture (3).

Packaging waste from humanitarian interventions is likely to contribute to local waste pollution, given the high amount of waste that is not properly disposed of in low-income countries. Whilst packaging should be reduced first and foremost, repurposing packaging is a way to extend its useful life. It also provides additional benefits to the local population.


Key facts

Over 90%

of waste in low-income countries is disposed of in open dumps or burned (4)

5 million

children can benefit from toys made from cardboard packaging, through the UNICEF Project Play (5)

Key actions

  • #1 Identify suitable packaging

    Identify packaging that is already, or could potentially be, repurposed by beneficiaries.


  • #2 Facilitate repurposing

    Identify ways to facilitate repurposing, e.g. pre-printing cut-offs, providing manuals, etc.

  • #3 Provide a manual

    Provide an easy-to-understand manual in locally-used language(s).

  • #4 Raise awareness

    Provide additional awareness-raising or training sessions for beneficiaries.

To consider

  • Potential co-benefits

    • Reducing the environmental impact of packaging by giving it a second life
    • Improving the lives of beneficiaries by providing them with additional items
    • Other co-benefits depending on the solution, e.g. reducing fire wood collection
  • Success conditions

    • Providing clear instructions on how to repurpose the packaging
    • Making the process as simple as possible


  • Prerequisites & specificities

    • Branding and logos can prevent packaging from being reused


  • Potential risks

    • Potential safety risks, e.g. due to instability or mistakes during the construction, if applicable


Repurposed packaging displayed as a pile of cardboard boxes on a sidewalk.
© Michael Jin/Unsplash.

Success stories

UNHRD Lab: Repurposing wooden packaging for a cradle

UNHRD Lab in collaboration with its suppliers redesigned the packaging of family tents (a wooden crate) to be used as a cradle for babies until the age of four months. Once the tent is set up, the crate can be turned into a cradle with rockers, a baby mattress and sheets. A complementary teddy bear is produced with excess materials from blanket production (6)

UNICEF: Turning cardboard boxes into toys

UNICEF will print and pre-cut toys on cardboard packaging of ready-to-use therapeutic food. The project is not only tackling packaging waste, but also addresses the lack of access to toys – an important part of malnutrition treatment. If scaled, this project has the potential to reach up to five million children per year – the number of children who received UNICEF-supported severe acute malnutrition treatment and care in 2019 (7)

UNHRD Lab: Redesigning packaging to be turned into a solar cooker

UNHRD Lab is redesigning the packaging of its kitchen sets to be easily turned into a solar cooker. According to UNHRD, it only requires three steps to set up the cooker. Not only is packaging waste reduced, the cooker also reduces fuel consumption (8)

Aarambh: Creating cardboard school bags which unpack into small desks

The NGO developed a school bag that turns into a small desk for children in areas that lack basic school necessities. Aarambh collects discarded cardboard boxes from recycling centres, offices and retail stores and cuts out the desk/bag design. The cardboard then folds into a small bag for school supplies and can even be turned into a small desk. The project helps improve children’s posture and comfort and avoids health problems arising from reading and writing long hours on the floor (9)

Tools and good practices

  • UNICEF Project Brief: Project Play

    The project brief provides a good summary of the UNICEF Project Play.

    Read here
  • Video: Family tent with cradle from packaging

    The video provides further information on the family tent with a cradle made from its packaging and how complementary items are made from excess material from blanket production

    Watch here
  • Cradle tent developed with UNHRD Lab

    The item description of the UNHRD family tent with a cradle made from its packaging

    Read here
  • Innovative portable solar cooker using the packaging waste of humanitarian supplies, 2016

    A research article that presents a prototype for a portable solar cooker from cardboard packaging, by Regattieri

    Read here

To go further

  • WFP, Rethinking packaging, reducing waste, 2018

    A blogpost on WFP’s action to address the growing packaging waste challenge, including making packaging appropriate and safe for reuse. It also provides a few examples of how beneficiaries reuse WFP packaging

    Read here
  • USAID, Sustainability in Humanitarian Supply Chains. A Preliminary Scoping of Improvements in Packaging, 2020.

    The scoping document contains a section on repurposing packaging waste

    Read here


(1) WFP (Word Food Program), Rethinking packaging, reducing waste, 2018. Read here

(2) USAID, Sustainability in humanitarian supply chains: A Preliminary Scoping of Improvements in Packaging, 2020. Read here

(3) MDPI (Alberto Regattieri, Mauro Gamberi, Marco Bortolini, and Francesco Piana), Innovative Solutions for Reusing Packaging Waste Materials in Humanitarian Logistics, 2018. Read here

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

(5) UNICEF Office of Innovation, Project Play. Read here

(6) UNHRD, 2020 in Review, 2020. Read here

(7) UNICEF Office of Innovation, Project Play. Read here

(8) UNHRD, 2018 in Review, 2018. Read here

(9) Spring Wise, In India old cardboard boxes used to create school bags that transform into desks. Read here


Cover photo © Anna Tarazevich/Pexels.