29 May 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Trimming the waste: UN looks to reduce its environmental footprint

UN Environment

The city of Goma, which lies along the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has for decades been a hub of humanitarian operations in response to conflicts and natural disasters in the region, including neighbouring Rwanda.

The capital of Nord-Kivu Province, Goma is also home to the UN’s largest peacekeeping operation, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO).

Following repeated cycles of conflict, the city – which has a population of roughly one million – has experienced public health and environmental challenges due to inadequate solid waste management.

An initial 2014 assessment by UN Environment, the UN Development Programme and Goma Municipality estimated that the residents generate between 600-800 tonnes of garbage daily. However, less than 5 per cent of this waste is collected, with the bulk of it openly and haphazardly burned, buried or dumped, creating numerous adverse environmental and health impacts.

Solid waste management is one of the most challenging environmental and public health problems confronting the rapidly growing city of Goma (Hassan Partow/UN Environment)     

The assessment also noted that while the peacekeeping mission plays a crucial role in protecting civilians, its operations generate considerable volumes of garbage, whose handling and disposal represents an additional burden on Goma’s already-strained capacity to manage waste.

To help address this challenge, the peacekeeping mission launched a waste composting project in July 2015. Under the project, food from damaged ration packs as well leftover food from military contingents are donated to a community piggery project established by a local NGO, Action and Support for Integrated Development (ASDI).

“The project, which started with 50 piglets in 2015, now has over 250 pigs and has already supplied 100 piglets to individual households, thanks to the damaged ration packs and food waste from MONUSCO,” said Tom Sengalama, head of the mission’s Environmental Protection Unit.

Beyond biodegradable food waste, the UN peacekeeping mission’s waste contractor in Goma has also partnered with Eco Plastic, a firm in neighbouring Rwanda, to convert plastic bottles into paving stones. The resultant revenue is then used to train communities in handicraft-making; to provide livestock to local communities; and to construct shelter for displaced people and other vulnerable communities. Some of the proceeds are also used to pay school fees for vulnerable children.

The peacekeeping mission has also been recycling the huge amount of paper waste from its operations to manufacture briquettes, which are then used by the local community for cooking.

The Goma project is just one example of how the UN is working to reduce its environmental footprint – specifically with regards to waste.

According to the Greening the Blue Report 2017, 20 UN entities are implementing waste management plans across 75 different sites. Most of those entities have adopted plans to reduce their use of paper, while others have installed mains-fed water fountains in lieu of plastic bottles.

The report further noted that 77 per cent of waste was generated in Field Missions. This in part is a reflection of the large proportion of UN personnel – approximately half – that are deployed in peace operations. The per capita consumption is also higher “largely due to the fact that the work of Field Missions takes place in camps where occupants both work and live, unlike a typical UN office where waste is generated during working hours only”.

Waste workers
Production of compost from biodegradable waste is ongoing in Goma, albeit on a small scale (Hassan Partow/UN Environment)

In Bangkok, UN Environment and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific are “greening” the UN’s facilities and operations by reducing plastic waste and tackling food waste, as well as introducing an eco-friendly menu and reducing energy consumption. Staff are also being encouraged to bring their own reusable bottles, mugs and containers to reduce the use of single-use plastic containers.

In Nairobi, UN Environment and the United Nations Office at Nairobi, have collaborated to halt the sale of beverages served in plastic bottles. Furthermore, beginning from June, there will be a ban on plastic straws, and all disposable coffee cup lids will be made of recyclable plastic. The new measure will ensure that 99 per cent of the waste generated at the facility will be recyclable.

All of these efforts fall under the UN Climate Neutral Strategy, adopted in 2007.

“UN Environment is committed to supporting the UN system in improving the environmental performance its facilities and performance,” said Isabella Marras, Coordinator of the Sustainable United Nations team. “Each of the entities participating in the Climate Neutral Strategy has an officially appointed environmental sustainability focal point who oversees its implementation.” Members of the team support the UN organizations in their efforts to implement environmentally sustainable practices.

On June 5, people the world over will mark World Environment Day, whose theme in 2018 is “beat plastic pollution”. This year’s celebrations will be hosted in India, but events are being planned around the globe.

Learn more about UN Environment’s work on the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.