Follow Us:

Forgotten women’s uplift

In developing countries across South and Southeast Asia, a disproportionate percentage of women earn their livelihoods as informal waste workers. 

Statesman News Service |

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, and 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. How- ever, 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 hard- er 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 in 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.