top of page

Zero-waste settlements: A vision of circular humanitarian settings

A child running barefoot in a refugee camp with a big smile on his or her face is heart warming; if there’s garbage around it’s a shame and if the kid is playing in a landfill it’s disturbing.

Source: Wix photos

The challenge of co-creating solid waste management (SWM) systems in refugee or Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps may not seem like a life-threatening issue and certainly not as immediate a need as access to food, water, sanitation and a secure shelter. But the problems and negative impacts of neglecting SWM accumulate over time and become harder and more costly to solve. On the other hand, well designed SWM offers settlements opportunities that benefit both the wellbeing and livelihoods of residents. Poor waste management adversely impacts health, wellbeing and the local environment.

Inadequate solid waste management systems in refugee or IDP camps and host settlements create an unsanitary and unhealthy environment that compounds the threats faced in the day to day lives of the world's most vulnerable people , including (arguably especially) children. Fleeing home as a result of conflict or natural disasters disproportionately affects those already living in poverty, and people in refugee or IDP camps find themselves exposed to challenges that they are not equipped to cope with. Adding to that, mismanaged waste makes them vulnerable to disease, prone to fire hazards and toxic fumes and the negative psychological effect of living with trash. These are the findings from our fieldwork in refugee and IDP camps in Uganda and Somalia, following the methodology we developed for Elrha.

While higher-income societies externalise waste through landfills, incineration and exports, lower-income settlements struggle with it. Yet both high- and low-income settlements, London and Lagos alike, live in a linear economy that produces an astounding amount of waste. Transitioning to zero-waste circular economies is a challenge we all face, from the Rwamwanja refugee camp in Uganda to the Borough of Fulham in London (registered address of UrbanEmerge).

At this unique juncture in human history, our actions can either perpetuate social injustice and environmental devastation beyond repair, or revolutionize our systems to be inclusive, ecological and circular. How beautiful would it be if refugee camps leap-frogged the linear economy and developed circular local economies that evolved into inclusive, ecological and circular regional development over time?

The trouble is, a zero-waste way of life requires radical change, not a solid waste management (SWM) solution that sits on our existing way of life. You can’t just plug-and-play a SWM solution and achieve zero waste. You need everyone in the waste chains, from producers to consumers, to get involved.

This is why our first and arguably most important innovation is to develop a shared vision of ‘zero waste refugee settlements’.

In our roundtable discussion held on the 12th of October 2022 with practitioners organised by Elrha (HIF) most participants identified collaboration between stakeholders towards zero-waste as the most challenging innovation identified in our research. A shared vision of zero waste settlements, and better still, a zero-waste, inclusive, ecological and circular regional economy, can galvanise the attention of all stakeholders, and steer innovation and collective action towards that shared vision.

One of the big take-aways from our co-authored book on the rise and fall of urban economies, is that a shared vision in a diverse and cross-cutting social context, where people talk to people across social and institutional boundaries, allows for superior responses to collective challenges and opportunities.

Humanitarian actors have the opportunity of coming together and showcasing best practice to the world in SWM. About half the waste observed (we didn’t conduct a waste audit, which the next phase of research would require) was organic waste, which is easily compostable. The organic waste can be turned into compost and distributed or sold to refugee/IDP/host farmers that serve the local market with organic local produce.

With about 55% of refugees in Uganda's Rwamwanja camp for example owning between 0.5 and 1 acre of agricultural land and about a third of refugees consuming home-grown food, an inclusive and sustainable local economy in the food and beverage sector can be promoted through composting bio-waste.

Small-scale recycling technologies and techniques can also be used to produce products for regional consumption and beyond. See how Veena Sahajwalla, the ‘waste queen’ in Australia uses a micro-factory to transform glass and cotton into tiles. Such factories can access social plastic (recycled plastic) from refugee camps through reverse logistics, whereby delivery trucks can transport plastic waste to aggregators and recyclers rather than drive back empty as they often do.

So when we call for zero-waste refugee settlements and host communities, we are talking about reducing, reusing and recycling all the organic and man-made materials (especially packaging) flowing into the territory. These materails can then be used to grow the economic opportunity for refugees and IDPs, which could help them improve their access to resources that have historically been out of reach.

Humanitarian agencies, municipal governments, refugee and IDP communities and host communities together with partners far afield can reduce, reuse and recycle across all their activities, catalysing new regenerative development towards an inclusive, ecological and circular region, creating income-generating opportunities and improving livelihoods. What is needed is a shared vision.

Our new mantra, Zero Waste settlements, is possible and offers the opportunity to galvanise the attention of all stakeholders and unleash creativity and innovation in pursuit of a circular and regenerative humanitarian settings.


About this project:

UrbanEmerge, FLUSH and the Science Practice were commissioned by Elrha (HIF) to develop a methodology for humanitarian innovators and funders for the WASH sector, and to conduct two pilot-studies to test-run the methodology. Guided by the methodology we explored the problem of improper solid waste management in two settings – Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement in Uganda and Doolow Internally Displaced Person (IDP) Camp in Somalia.

The methodology and report were published by Elrha in October 2022 and available online:

The UrbanEmerge team included Mansoor Ali, senior SWM expert, Lamax Ogwal and Felix Ebyachu who conducted the field work and Naji Makarem, UrbanEmerge managing partner and project director) in partnership with FLUSH (Kimberly Worsham, Team Leader) and the Science Practice (Andrea Wong led the development of the methodology and key contributions throughout).

65 views0 comments


bottom of page