From waste to value

Once life-saving assistance has been delivered, used WFP Polypropylene bags take on a life of their own

The priority of humanitarian aid has always been to help people in need – often in vulnerable or fragile settings – and follow the principle of ‘do no harm’: a duty not to put those people at risk of any negative consequence. This extends to ensuring the food we distribute is safe and so is how it is transported, packaged and stored. And yet, in many cases we see adverse environmental impacts associated with well-intended humanitarian action. In many countries/operations, a lack of waste management and recycling facilities or finding a new life to used items in good conditions represents a challenge in the day-to-day life of thousands of humanitarian logisticians. 

The World Food Programme (WFP) faces this challenge in its operations all around the world. WFP distributed 4.8 million tonnes of food in 2022 and used a staggering 150 million polypropylene (PP) bags. The bags can be recycled –unless they are damaged from travelling hours by land, air or sea or while in storage– yet, they often end up stockpiled in WFP warehouses, or become waste.

WFP is determined to turn the trend around and started to identify design solutions for packaging with reuse in mind from the start, to reduce the use of PP bags. At the same time, resourceful Country Offices are teaming up with local partners to recycle the PP bags – , success stories from Nicaragua, Kenya and Yemen show how recycling can lead to the ingenious production of new, useful items and reduction of plastic waste.

Nicaragua

Following two powerful hurricanes that hit Nicaragua in November 2020, WFP began coordinating with the National System for Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Response to provide lifesaving food assistance and supporting institutions in logistics and telecommunications.

One of the main modalities of attention was the delivery of take-home rations, which required repackaging the food and disposing the polypropylene bags from the original packaging. To avoid sending the bags to local landfills, WFP Nicaragua Supply Chain identified a brilliant solution by partnering with a company capable of recycling the bags: TABLECO.

Between December 2021 and June 2023, WFP successfully delivered 93,000 used bags to TABLECO, which were used as raw material to make desks for public school students. With this initiative, the WFP Supply Chain contributes to reducing waste, supports the local economy and raises awareness about environmental protection by encouraging other humanitarian partners to do the same.

" This type of desk represents an alternative to reduce deforestation because it reduces the use of wood to make furniture, product that is very common in Nicaragua community schools, so by using this innovating action we contribute little by little to the protection of the planet ". 

Manuel Vargas, WFP Nicaragua Business Support Assistant 

WREC article WFP bags

Photo credits: WFP SC Nicaragua

Yemen

WFP's critical supply chain operations are essential to support people in need across Yemen each year. However, since 2015 when WFP started responding to the conflict, used packaging materials – including Polypropylene bags and pallets – have been taking up precious space in WFP warehouses. In line with the WFP Yemen operational plans in the country, WFP supply chain tried to turn any materials accumulated in warehouses into new resources where possible, mitigating potential negative environmental impacts. Between 2018-23, the Country Office identified waste management vendors capable of repurposing the used materials and turning them in products -e.g. furniture, chairs, bags. To date, the vendors have collected and purchased approximately 1974 MT of materials from 12 WFP warehouses.

This initiative is a practical example of how WFP’s Yemen Country Office managed to introduce the circular economy approach into its operations by repurposing and recycling materials otherwise considered waste and by-products as inputs for new products, creating a circular closed loop of materials and money in the economy. Read more about the initiative here.

Yemen pp bags WREC article

Photo credits: WFP SC Yemen

Kenya

Supporting the Kenyan government’s battle against plastic pollution, and tapping into a thriving local recycling industry, Kenya Country Office has signed four long term agreements (LTAs) with vetted recycling companies to responsibly recycle supply chain waste materials, including food packaging waste.

These LTAs build on the experience of a pilot launched in Kenya in 2019 to recycle WFP surplus Polypropylene food bags. To date, 284 metric tonnes of bags, equivalent to 2.2 million bags, have been recycled into new unbranded bags, composed of 50% recycled material, for use in the local market.

While tackling plastic pollution, the recycling system is also supporting local industry and generating income for WFP: plastic waste is a valuable commodity in Kenya, with local recyclers paying up to USD 0.25 per kg. More information here.

 

Those initiatives demonstrate that it is possible to close the loop on plastic food packaging: don’t hesitate to engage with local suppliers and to reach out to the WREC (global.WREC@wfp.org) to learn how to turn tables, shifting from waste to value.