Waste management refers to the entire set of activities and actions required to manage waste from its inception to its final disposal. This process includes the timely collection, transport, treatment and disposal of waste, together with monitoring and regulation of the waste management process. The most pressing need for effective waste management arises out of the urgency to protect and ensure the sustainability of the environment as well as the health of the population. Rotting and untreated heaps of garbage produce harmful gases that mix with the air and cause the surroundings to be steeped in various diseases. Further, it releases enormous amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that leads to global warming. Other immediate impacts include water pollution and landslides.
The World Bank estimates that overall waste generation in the world will increase by 70% by 2050. Merely 13.5% of today’s waste is recycled and only 5.5% is composted. In India, in 2014-15, 91% of solid waste was collected, of which only 27% was treated and the remaining 73% was disposed haphazardly at dumpsites. A recent study indicates that India would need a landfill nearly the size of Bengaluru, to dump all its waste by 2030.
Down to Earth states that efficient waste management necessitates the need for proper segregation of waste and going through different processes of recycling and resource recovery. The reduced residue is then deposited scientifically into sanitary landfills which are the final means of disposal for under-utilised municipal solid waste from waste processing families and other types of inorganic waste which cannot be reduced or recycled.
Now, let us see this entire issue through the lens of Gender. Like any other sector, there are stark differences in the roles of men and women in the stable waste management sector as well. In this article, we shall discuss how this sector, that has immense potential for growth, poses both challenges and opportunities for women.
The World Bank estimates that overall waste generation in the world will increase by 70% by 2050.
India has one of the lowest scores on the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Index – ranked 108 out of 149 countries. Low levels of political empowerment and economic participation, and opportunities for women are the two drivers for this result. More than 50% of the work done by women in India is unpaid, and almost all of it is informal. Since waste management in the country is mostly informal, the study of gender in waste management is relevant not only to assess the degree but also to understand how gender roles influence the process.
To begin with, women have different attitudes and behaviours when it comes to waste generation and disposal. They also have different kinds of capabilities, interests and access to opportunities while seeking employment in waste management enterprises.
Women’s Participation in the Waste Management Sector
Women’s participation in this field tends to be limited to basic jobs and starting levels of the value chain – including sweeping the streets, collection of mixed wastes and supporting their partners in carrying and disposing of the trash in the bins. A few women pick recyclable waste from bins and help to sort and process wastes at plastic and organic waste recycling companies. The nature of participation in processing and recycling factories is also unregulated and women are engaged primarily as daily wage workers. As a result, women on an average earn half that of men in the sector.
The Informal Nature of the Sector
A socioeconomic study of Pune conducted by Ocean Conservancy revealed that 90% of street recycling pickers are women, and 25% are widowed, 30% are from women-headed households and 8% are sole earners. Invariably, all of them were from non-dominant castes and had not chosen the job out of their own volition. However, they liked the sense of freedom and safety there was in such a job as compared to other jobs in urban areas like construction work.
According to Hasiru Dala, an NGO active in waste management, no women are working as itinerant buyers or scrap dealers. Further, the businesses at the end of the value chain (like aggregators and preprocessors) have male registered owners in almost all cases. Only in Bengaluru, women primarily participate within the waste workforce as “Pourakarmikas” – a term used for formal waste collectors and street sweepers. They also separate recyclables which helps them earn an extra income. While Bengaluru and some other cities reflect instances of high engagement of women in formal waste occupation, this is still not the norm for the entire country where men are preferred for public or private waste collection.
Lack of Focus on Recycling
One major problem is that more than three-fourths of the waste management budget is allotted to collection and transportation, leaving very little for processing or resource recovery and disposal.
Collection for recycling allows for equal opportunity. While this is not necessarily a steady source of income, it offers recycling collectors a chance to sell recyclables to junk shops for a livelihood. More women tend to participate in this task because it allows them to bring young children along (who sometimes join in the collection and sorting) and flexibility in the hours of operation and attendance.
90% of street recycling pickers are women, and 25% are widowed, 30% are from women-headed households and 8% are sole earners.
Recycling collectors can be roughly categorised into two groups: in the lowest income range are the bag-on-shoulder pickers collecting from streets and dumpsites. This group has more women while the cycle or cart-carried recycling collectors who are either employed by private recyclables collectors or itinerant buyers who earn slightly better incomes are mostly men.
Although ‘End to End’ segregation is the waste generator’s responsibility, it is primarily and invariably the women who are responsible for managing the waste of the household.
Gender-Based Preference in Organisations
Women are mostly tasked with skilled and time-intensive tasks. They are employed by processing companies to sort, clean, separate, pack and sift through recyclable material through the various stages of processing and sorting documents into fresh, uncontaminated streams. This process requires an understanding of the value of the materials and motor skills which is not available for most women. Men, on the other hand, are preferred for more physical activities of loading and unloading. The women, therefore, perform the more mundane and time-consuming tasks which leave them with little or no motivation.
While women are highly represented in organisations that up-cycle or down-cycle recyclables into other household products, arts and crafts, these organisations are mostly small scale and informal. The pay is also not commensurate with the effort that goes into these tasks.
Here are some of the steps that could be taken to tackle the problems stated above:-
- Awareness campaigns: Given that women mostly perform the task of household waste management, creating women-centred campaigns will help in creating a positive behaviour change. They can also be relied upon to share such awareness within their social circles, members of their family and children in particular.
- Increasing social acceptance and reducing the stigma associated with waste-related work: A major limiting factor facing waste sector workers but women, in particular, is the stigma related to such tasks and the overall idea of “dignity of labour”. Raising awareness regarding the importance of effective waste management and improving the working environments of junk shops can go a long way in removing stigma.
It must be ensured that this sector’s on-ground workforce is not forced as professions for people from non-dominant castes. It must also be assured that women do not have to travel long distances or stay for more extended hours from home in such jobs. Leadership skills must be fostered amongst women and capacity building efforts must take place for existing waste businesses. Further, helping them get access to pricing information can be very helpful as they will spread this within their social circles.
- Ensuring parity of resources: Most women engaged in this sector do not have access to or own carts and other vehicles that help in the collection of larger volumes of waste and transport them to longer distances. Many women also don’t operate motorised vehicles which could help them increase income and work faster with increased efficiency. Further, ownership or management of later-stage businesses such as aggregators, material processing company owners, landfill operators, etc. must be ensured. An approach that goes beyond just engaging women in time-consuming, mundane tasks must be taken.
- Safer working environments: As mentioned above, women are engaged in sorting and collection of mixed waste streams, which means that they are exposed to toxic or hazardous waste as well. Providing them with access to protective gear, footwear, masks, gloves and sorting machinery would assure more occupational safety and reduce instances of physical harm. Since most of their work requires the work of hands, they are challenged when they fall ill, which leads to the loss of income.
This being primarily an unregulated sector that often requires having to work in dingy alleyways and poorly maintained areas, women are exposed to crime and harassment. Such instances point to a clear link between the role of efficient waste management in the making of safe public spaces and vice versa.
- A nuanced approach to formalising the sector: An informal industry automatically means that more focus is given on physical strength. Men earn more in total, either because they are perceived as being stronger (by themselves and women) or they collect more. Creation of an equal ground would require paying attention to access to machines and transportation facilities for women. Further, it means the provision of benefits, higher and regular pay and security of formal employment to women while at the same time accommodating their needs for flexibility and proximity to residence.
There is a high incidence of respiratory illnesses resulting from exposure to toxic and unclean materials. Many workers have reported that they do not have any health insurance coverage and limited access to adequate health care. There is a need for the provision of health insurance and improved access to health services. Institutional support must be extended to these communities, and a network of organisations focusing on supporting waste workers’ communities must be fostered.A few examples of these organisations are Hasiru Dala in Bengaluru and KKPKP in Pune, which has formed cooperatives for these communities and provided them with uniforms, protective gear and ID cards to give these jobs a formal look and challenge existing social norms. On an international level, there is the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) working with women working in the informal sector.
- Education: Most of the waste sector workers, as well as junk shop owners and operators, have limited knowledge and exposure to education, with less than half of them studying beyond the early grades. Providing access to some functional education/vocational training would not only aid and assist them with day-to-day operations, but also allow for better exposure and empowerment. Providing opportunities for educating their children will be highly beneficial in all aspects.
Given the estimated rise of waste generation in the country, there is considerable scope for its formalisation. There is an excellent value in the environmental and social gains of waste management. For example, one tonne of recycled paper saves approximately 17 trees and 2.5 barrels of oil. Further, efficient waste management in the country itself will help us in reducing buying scrap from developed nations and help us establish a self-sustaining and sustainable system of our own.
In conclusion, it can be said that a systematic shift towards the best practices of waste management requires us to look at various other elements of society – gender dynamics, caste-based discrimination, unsafe public spaces, inefficiently functioning municipal corporations, etc. and work on multiple levels. Having an efficient micro-financing system, lobbying at policy levels, increasing general health and human rights awareness are some of the ways to achieve a positive behaviour change of the masses, corporations and the government.
Meanwhile, on an individual level, let us all embrace and internalise the 5R’s- Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle for a healthier tomorrow!
For further reading: WEDC Practical Action NDTV EPW Engage Waste Dive
Featured image used for representative purpose only. Image source: YourStory