From single-use water bottles to food packaging and personal care products, plastic has permeated every aspect of our lives. Recognizing the grave environmental threat posed by plastic pollution, world leaders and policymakers, including the Government of India, have intensified their focus on environmental sustainability. However, the gendered impact of this growing hazard remains overlooked and inadequately addressed. Women, often relegated to the margins, are at the forefront of battling the repercussions of our plastic addiction. Their roles not only as primary consumers but also as workers in the informal waste sector in India make them particularly vulnerable.
The rise of plastic pollution and the comparative disadvantage of women in the waste sector
Despite India’s strong focus on reduction of plastic consumption and pollution, plastic waste generation more than doubled between 2015-16 and 2019-20. As India’s urban population surges to 800 million by 2050, waste generation will grow in parallel – with a proportionate increase in plastic waste.
The urban informal waste management economy, which plays a critical role recycling 30 per cent of India’s annual 3.4MT of plastic waste, comprises a significant percentage of vulnerable groups like women, children and recent migrants. Women make up 49 per cent of waste pickers in India and are disproportionately affected by hazards associated with landfills and dumpsites. Given their subordination in the value chain, female waste pickers cannot pick high quantities compared to men and are often left with low-value recyclables. Working in isolated locations, often without personal protective equipment and tools (that are more readily available to men) women ragpickers frequently miss out on a stable income. A study by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, revealed that women waste pickers earn 33 per cent less despite doing the same amount of work.
The working conditions make them susceptible to respiratory illness and infection. The higher proportion of fat in female bodies provides a larger reservoir for bioaccumulating and lipophilic chemicals from plastic, leading to greater absorption concentrations of toxic chemicals in women, even when the exposure rate is the same. According to a UN report, women handling plastic waste could face increased rates of breast cancer, infertility, miscarriages, and hormonal imbalances.
Women are also greater consumers of plastic. Around 90 per cent of products like sanitary napkins are made from plastic. As primary decision-makers within the domestic sphere, women are major purchases of single-use-plastics (SUPs) for food and household items. Research by Manipal School of Life Sciences found that such SUPs often contain bisphenol A, or BPA, which has ‘the potential’ to cause metabolic-endocrine disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome in premenopausal women. Additionally, social norms have mandated women’s greater consumption of plastic-packed beauty products. An overall ecosystem has thus been created wherein, despite being significantly more at risk to health threats from plastics, women cannot escape it.
However, limited gender-disaggregated data and evidence around the comparative challenges that women in the plastic waste economy face, has meant that their enormous contribution in tackling this pollution, and the resulting impact on them, have not been adequately recognised.
Strengthening collaboration and integration, the need of the hour
In recent years, India’s leadership, in a resolute response to the urgent issue of plastic pollution, has embarked on a series of bold initiatives. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), Lifestyle for Environment/LiFE – which promotes mindful consumption, the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016 and banning SUPs have emerged as cornerstones in the battle against this environmental menace. Further, a chorus of CSOs have been spearheading transformative campaigns that inspire change and galvanize communities by facilitating direct connections between waste pickers and local government and businesses in need of waste collection. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad and the Pune Municipal Corporation’s with the Solid Waste Collection and Handling (SWaCH) for instance, have forged ground-breaking partnerships, that have not only elevated the welfare of waste pickers but have also sparked unionization of workers, empowering them to advocate for better rights and working conditions.
To safeguard the progress achieved by some of the successful programs, there is a crucial need to institutionalize these agreements with higher levels of government and protect waste pickers’ livelihoods by preventing the outsourcing of their services to private entities. Moreover, informal workers must be integrated into formal collectives to eradicate stigma associated with their work and enable taking forward valuable knowledge and skills learnt over generations of involvement in waste picking. Strengthening the integration of such models within national and state rural livelihood missions will also be key to scaling the efforts to other parts of the country.
NITI Aayog alongside United Nations Development Programme or the United Nations Environment Programme could spearhead research to bridge the existing evidence gap and understand the unique challenges, impacts, and requirements at the intersection of women and the plastic industry. Aligned to that, waste management policies need to be strengthened to recognize and address the gendered impact of plastic pollution - from improving working conditions and ensuring fair wages to providing protective gear and access to healthcare. This must be supplemented by greater collaborations and integration between government schemes and initiatives, such as the Swachh Bharat Mission and the Smart Cities movement. This is not only essential for combating the escalating plastic menace, but also in providing support to the informal women workforce who bear the disproportionate burden of plastic pollution.
To foster sustainable development and equitable progress, there is a need to synergize these efforts and pave the way for a future that embraces environmental stewardship and empowers women to thrive.
Jija Dutt is the Manager and Megha Biswas is an Associate at Chase India
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.