Plastic waste is a growing problem worldwide. Many countries do not have waste management and recycling systems, and plastic waste ends up in the environment, where it does irreparable damage.

In refugee camps around the world, the main concern is primary needs such as survival and protection. For the residents and authorities, waste management is often far down on the list of priorities.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) wants to do something about this. They have started a trial project in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. The project should both solve an environmental problem and contribute to economic growth locally.

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in Norway cooperates with UNHCR, and was looking for an expert on pollution and the environment for the project. Cathrine Eckbo of NGI was quick to show an interest. She works with recycling and environmental technology on a daily basis.  Together with a retired Statoil engineer and a masters student from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), she spent four weeks in Kenya and Ethiopia in July 2018.

The assignment was to survey the problem of plastic waste in three refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, to evaluate recycling options and at the same time contribute to economic growth and employment in the camps and local communities.

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On an assignment for Engineers Without Borders in Melkadida, Ethiopia: From left: Cathrine Eckbo, NGI; Anna Østby, NMBU student; Demissew Eshete, UNHCR and environmental consultant Sten Paltiel.

Cathrine and the rest of the team visited Kakuma in the north-west of Kenya and then the Melkadida and Jijiga areas in neighbouring Ethiopia. In all places there were large amounts of plastic waste in the camps, including plastic cans, water bottles and various types of plastic packaging.

"In Kenya, the plastic problem was not as visible, as in 2017 they imposed a ban on plastic bags," says Cathrine. “In addition, much of the plastic was shown to be burned, which is harmful both to health and the environment.”

Ethiopia does not have a ban on plastic bags, and there was a lot of plastic on the streets and everywhere in the camps. Plastic bags and other rubbish are transported by the wind and end up in fences and bushes.

There is little organised waste disposal in the refugee camps. In some of the camps there are private collectors who travel around gathering plastic bottles and cans and sell them to buyers in the capital. However, most of the plastic waste is burned, sent to landfills or buried.

Rubbish turned into bowls and building materials

The three Norwegians working for EWB and UNHCR spent a lot of time figuring out what kind of plastic products there was a need for, what could be produced locally as well as what products there was a market for.

The following plastic-based products are some of the most important ones proposed in the report, which will soon be completed:

  • Chairs and other furniture
  • Washing-up bowls, wash basins and buckets
  • A large water tank that can be used for hand washing in the many latrines
  • Building materials in the form of wall and ceiling slabs and bricks (eco-bricks) consisting of water bottles filled with sand.

They largely worked by going around and talking to people.

“We looked at what was sold on the markets. We visited people in their homes and looked at the kind of plastic products they used. Last but not least, we talked to a lot of people about what they had a use for,” says Cathrine Eckbo. “We learned a lot from this. And this is an important point for UNHCR and EWB: we should include refugees and the local population and involve them in the process from the start, and not just offer ready-made solutions. We therefore arranged focus groups and workshops as well as talking to people.”


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Left: Masters student Anna Østby in one of the refugee camps in Ethiopia, where she was helping to record the extent of plastic waste. Right: En Some of the plastic waste in Ethiopian refugee camps ends up in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

Production in 2019

After the final report is finished in the autumn, the project will be implemented during 2019 and 2020. The first year will be devoted to financing and planning. Production itself will get underway in the second year.

Aid organisations will play a central role in the start-up phase, while one long-term goal is to establish autonomous businesses.

“We hope to be part of this in the future. I've become extremely involved in this, and it means a lot to me. So I’d love to return to Ethiopia and Kenya again to help with the follow-up phase,” Cathrine says. “I’m really happy working in such a role. Here you can see fast, concrete results from what you are doing. And you know that it’s helping a lot of people!”

Many challenges

There have been many challenges along the way. Among other things, there is a specific need to plan production in places where the landscape is barren and there is a lack of electric power and infrastructure.

“I’m learning a huge amount on this project. In addition to the professional aspect, I get a lot out of working in sub-optimal conditions and with people from different cultures. We have to be able to communicate with everyone – both locally and within the broader UN system.”

Cathrine Eckbo and her colleagues received a warm welcome, and often a cup of coffee, wherever they went in Ethiopia and Kenya. People thought that the introduction of measures to recycle plastic and manage waste was both sensible and useful.

“Are you optimistic in terms of recycling plastic waste in the refugee camps?”

“Yes, absolutely. I think it's entirely possible to make this work. I don't dare to say that the project is going to result in autonomous production companies, but I really hope so.”

Based on the experiences in Ethiopia and Kenya, the UN Refugee Agency hopes to introduce similar plastic recycling measures in a number of camps worldwide.

Proud community engagement

NGI’s expertise covers everything that involves soil, rock and snow and their impact on the environment, structures and facilities. For NGI, it’s about researching and developing solutions for society, ensuring that we can build, live and travel on safe ground. These are key skills in aid projects where clean water, electricity and infrastructure are often of central importance.

"There is a lot of interest among NGI employees to participate in this kind of work to benefit society. I am proud to lead a business with so many employees who are passionate about society and willing to spend both their work and free time to help their fellow people," says Lars Andresen, CEO of NGI.



  • Engineers Without Borders Norway (EWB) is an interest organisation promoting development through the dissemination of engineering expertise to Norwegian aid agencies.
  • As one of the main partners, NGI supports Engineers Without Borders Norway (EWB) financially and by contributing engineering skills to many EWB assignments for Norwegian aid organisations.
  • NGI specialists participating in assignments abroad are given the opportunity to use their technical background and expertise to make a difference to other people’s lives.
  • The UN Refugee Agency (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR for short) was established in 1950 and has the goal of protecting and supporting refugees.