One of the easiest ways to embrace a sustainable lifestyle starts with recycling efforts at home. As consumers, the first step is to educate ourselves on what the symbols at the bottom of each plastic bottle mean. What’s often unseen though, is the reality for a group whose contributions are often forgotten – the women behind Asia’s plastic waste systems.

In developing countries across South and Southeast Asia, a disproportionate percentage of women earn their livelihoods as informal waste workers. The term “waste worker” or “waste picker” was adopted at the First World Conference of Waste Pickers in Bogota in 2008 in order to eradicate derogatory terms that were previously used to describe these essential workers. These workers make a living collecting, sorting, recycling, and selling materials from waste streams – which provides essential sanitation, solid waste management services, and helps keep plastics out of our ocean.

Dependence on informal waste workers in the waste management and recycling ecosystem is more prevalent in certain geographical areas in the world. In Asia, informal workers contribute to over 95 per cent of some types of plastics recovered for recycling – with women making up the majority of the informal workforce in certain countries within the region. Despite the essential role that they play, the contributions of these women are often overlooked.

In certain countries such as Vietnam and India, women make up a high percentage of the workers who are picking recyclables from municipal waste, dumpsites or landfills. However, they are earning disproportionately less compared to men. A 2021 study by the International Solid Waste Association has found that in Indonesia, male waste workers generated far higher monthly incomes than those earned by their female counterparts ($128.3 for men compared to $69.7 for women), even with similar average working hours.

The imbalance that exists ultimately places women waste workers at a serious disadvantage, as it is harder for them to access opportunities to build assets and consolidate influence. Women often don’t have a seat at the table, and are often under-represented in decision-making positions. This keeps them in low-level positions of the waste management value chain, making career progression difficult. The low value of plastic waste exacerbates this problem and can keep informal waste collectors and their families, who already have little to no social and economic protection, stuck in a cycle of poverty.

There’s often still a social stigma attached to informal waste work. This is especially true for female informal waste workers, who tend to face gender-based disadvantages, discrimination, harassment, and violence. In patriarchal societies such as India, women traditionally take on the role of homemakers. Yet, with the rising costs of living, they are given little choice but to juggle tending to their homes and families while searching for means to earn a salary to contribute to their household. Their contributions to the recovery and recycling of valuable plastics are often undermined.

Additionally, due to lockdowns all around the world caused by Covid-19, tens of thousands of informal waste collectors have lost daily essential earnings – and women waste workers are feeling double the effect. The pandemic has been shown to disproportionately affect women globally, especially since it has significantly increased the burden of unpaid care. There are other factors, such as increased childcare burdens, attitudinal bias, reduced public and private spending on industries like education or child care that cause women to leave the labor market permanently.

Those who have no choice but to stay, though, have to face an additional layer of juggling childcare responsibilities. At times, this results in children having to work alongside their parents, contributing to an even bigger problem: child labour. Waste dumps are not safe for children, and exposure to landfill sites has been scientifically proven to impact children’s growth. While measures have been taken to reduce or eliminate child labour, this inevitably means their carers (who are mostly their mothers), are less likely able to work. These women waste workers may then lack the resources – necessary wages, working conditions and social protection – or other options to care for their children.

Covid-19 has undoubtedly impacted waste systems around the globe, and there are additional health and safety risks for those at the frontline of waste collection. After all, most are handling plastic waste, which contains toxicities that can be detrimental to one’s health.

The effects hit women more, and are especially dangerous to the female biological reproductive function. According to a study from SEA Circular, “biological distinctions between men and women – such as differences in body size, amount of adipose tissue, and hormones – may amplify the effects of toxic chemicals on the human body and their elimination from the body”. The report also found existing epidemiologic and biological evidence to suggest that women in the plastics industry are developing breast cancer and experiencing reproductive problems at alarming rates from exposure to endocrine disruptors.

Key players in the waste management and recycling ecosystem in the region – startups, innovators, accelerators, incubators, corporates, governments, community operators and more – can do more to put gender issues in the spotlight all year round. These players can be key drivers of change if businesses are modelled to value equity.

The Incubation Network is working with various Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Social Enterprises as part of its Equality in Plastics Circularity programme to come up with innovative pilot solutions. These tackle critical issues around social and economic gender inequalities across the plastic waste value chain, particularly affecting women waste workers.

In Delhi, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group has established four decentralised plastic waste collection facilities on land owned by municipality or residents’ associations, with two being led by women waste pickers. Their project helps to identify the optimal working conditions for women waste pickers to manage plastic waste.

Over in the Philippines, Pure Oceans is working with island and coastal communities to set up their own material recovery facilities to try and reduce the initial creation of waste. They’re piloting a reusable cloth nappy subscription service, where they’re making it easier for parents to use reusable nappies, as well as a door-to-door service that refills household cleaning supplies, reducing reliance on plastic sachets. This ultimately supports women, especially mothers, to make more eco-conscious choices in the household, while reducing waste generated.

When we empower women informal waste workers, it helps challenge the deeply-established gender hierarchies present in their homes, workplaces, and society. By uplifting women doing informal waste work, we may eventually find new, more equitable paths to a sustainable, plastic waste-free future.

Laura Benns is director of programs for SecondMuse (The Incubation Network).