Treading lightly

Reducing humanitarian logistics’ environmental footprint
22 January 2019

For humanitarian logisticians, moving lifesaving goods to the world’s most remote, complex and hardest-to-reach communities is a daily task. But when goods arrive, what happens to the waste?

 

In countries that don’t have recycling facilities – or even safely managed landfill sites – how do we minimise our impact? Infrastructure, IT equipment, oil, car tyres, packaging – what happens to these items once the aid has been delivered?

 

Reverse, reuse, repurpose, rethink, recycle, reduce our environmental footprint. These concepts are moving to the forefront of how we think about humanitarian operations, and logistics is a big player.

 

But how does such a diverse group of humanitarian actors tackle a topic of this size? How do we dig deep to develop concrete outcomes and actions? Through a forum like the Logistics Cluster Global Meeting.

 

Last November, participants gathered for the first Logistics Cluster Global Meeting hosted by the World Food Programme at their headquarters in Rome.  The meeting was held from 6-7 November, gathering 62 participants from 42 organisations for two days of working and discussions. The overall environmental and sustainability theme took on a specific focus on “Reverse Logistics,” addressed through a thought-provoking keynote speech by Dr Gyöngyi Kovacs of the Hanken Institute.

 

This was followed by a rigorous and engaging panel discussion featuring Dr Kovacs along with environmental experts from UN Environment, IFRC and WFP who led meeting participants in breakout group activities designed to encourage idea sharing and to create practical steps that attendees could take back to their organisations following the event.

 

The Waste Hierarchy can help us choose better disposal options. Source: Improving Waste Management in the UN: Guidance for Practitioners, UNEP, 2018.

 

A range of key sustainability concepts came to the fore: from the idea of closing the resource loop (through a principle called the Circular Economy) to looking for ‘second life’ options such as donating goods that are still in working order, or repurposing shipping containers when they’re no longer fit for transport. It was clear that separating waste streams is crucial if we’re going to find ways to recycle, repurpose or recover energy from materials and the idea that some forms of disposal are better than others was useful food for thought.

 

But the most vital message? Preparedness.

 

Investing in planning not only emboldens and vitalises creativity and innovation - from using blankets and buckets as packaging, to exploring alternative transport options – it also helps overcome some of the key barriers to sustainable logistics.

 

Preparedness means we can raise the bar in budget planning to account for waste disposal and increasing knowledge on local recycling options. Done well, preparedness helps manage risks including breaching local regulations or causing environmental harm through dumping, open burning or spills. But overall, a preparedness approach promotes circular thinking and this, is one of the most powerful tools we have to solve the sustainability challenge.

 

 

The workshop groups identified a range of possible solutions to environmental challenges faced within humanitarian logistics operations, with information sharing between experts and participants as well as between attending organisations taking place both during and following the meeting, with participants also encouraged to make contact with environmental focal points within their own organisations. The Global Logistics Cluster has also made steps towards better integrating reverse logistics information into global tools such as the Logistics Capacity Assessments and the Logistics Operational Guide.

 

These meetings aim to provide a space for thought leadership and to allow partners to tackle big issues faced by the wider humanitarian logistics community, and the initial discussions on this crucial topic were an important first step towards a greater adoption of environmental considerations during humanitarian operations. As always, it was a great pleasure for the Logistics Cluster to bring colleagues and members of the humanitarian community together for this bi-annual forum. Many thanks must go to those who attended and supported this successful event, including WFP as host organisation, and we look forward to welcoming you to the next Global Meeting in Dubai in April 2019.

The NFR contains full details of the Keynote, Panel and workshop sessions. Dr Kovacs’ presentation can be found in the Day 1 slides, and the workshop outcomes are summarised here.