Opinion: Fixing the plastics problem when delivering urgent aid

Photo: National Caucus of Environmental Legislators

Coping with climate change is hard enough. Sustainability cannot be overlooked in humanitarian action across the Pacific. 

In March last year, twin cyclones – Tropical Cyclones Judy and Kevin – ravaged Vanuatu. The category four cyclones, occurring within 48 hours of each other, affected more than 240,000 people, roughly 80 per cent of the Vanuatu population. The rebuilding costs following the disaster are expected to amount to more than half of Vanuatu’s annual GDP. But just as locals began to get back on their feet, a category five tropical cyclone (Lola) hit the nation in October. 

The Lola disaster fell outside of the official cyclone season, which begins on 1 November. Unfortunately, for most Pacific Islanders, Vanuatu’s experience is part of a new reality on the front line in the fight against climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Pacific Islands are among the most at risk to the adverse effects of climate change. Extreme weather events are, and will continue to be, far more frequent, unpredictable, and intense. By 2050, global sea level is predicted to rise by up to 20 centimetres, engulfing several low-lying islands underwater, and driving further loss of ecosystems, cultural heritage and social identity. 

With disasters, follows foreign assistance. Yet, for many sectors operating in the Pacific – the humanitarian sector among them – sustainability takes a back seat to accommodate short-term benefits. Because humanitarians hope to deliver aid swiftly and effectively, they deprioritise long-term environmentally friendly behaviour. This must change. 

For example, many organisations opt for single-use packaging materials when preparing aid kits. These materials are often cheaper and less likely to carry contamination between aid recipients, so it is little wonder that humanitarian organisations choose them, striving to deliver aid to as many at-risk populations as possible while operating on stretched budgets. 

However, an overreliance on single-use plastic and other packaging materials overburden islands’ disposal systems. Many islands have limited recycling capacity and cannot afford high transport fees to reach distant facilities. This, in combination with the limited space on many of the islands, cause landfills to become overcrowded. When space in the landfill runs out, single-use materials provided by humanitarian actors will end up floating on the shoreline or sitting in residential areas. This has been the unfortunate case with recent humanitarian responses in the Pacific. 

There are concrete ways that humanitarians can “green” their operations and existing tools that organisations can draw on. 

Sustainability often becomes an afterthought for the humanitarian sector regarding transportation. For a remote region such as the Pacific Islands, international aid must be delivered by boat or air freight, burning fuel and emitting tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. And while the impact of this may not be visible in the short term, emissions from transportation today will only compound and intensify future disasters and sea-level rise in the long term. 

Beyond this, when several organisations deliver aid to the same island or even region, their travel routes overlap. The more congestion along these routes, the more delays there will be in delivery, which again contributes to greater emissions and, on a grander scale. 

Yet, for many in the humanitarian sector, these choices (to use single-use packing materials and high-emitting forms of transportation, among others) feel unavoidable. So, how can the humanitarian sector continue to deliver aid swiftly and effectively, while prioritising sustainability and playing their part in the fight against climate change in the Pacific Islands? 

There are concrete ways that humanitarians can “green” their operations and existing tools that organisations can draw on. For example, the Nexus Environmental Assessment Tool (NEAT+) flags and analyses the environmental sensitivities specific to a given project location. These site-specific analyses can be incorporated into project design using IFRC’s Green Response Quick Guide, which provides suggestions and past examples of how to reduce the environmental impacts of humanitarian project. Humanitarians can also “green” their operations by tracking and reducing their carbon emissions using the carbon accounting tool developed by EcoAct. 

While progress toward this imperative has remained slow to date, recent collaboration between Pacific climate experts and the Humanitarian Advisory Group has seen launch of the first-ever Framework for Greening Humanitarian Action in the Pacific. Drawing on consultation with Pacific Islanders at the local, national, and regional level, this collaboration lays out a pathway for the humanitarian sector to achieving a greener response, and one that prioritises the needs and knowledge of local communities in the Pacific. While the task may not be easy, the humanitarian sector must strive to incorporate sustainable thinking and action into their operations.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.