Waste, gender and climate change
The recovery, treatment and disposal of waste and wastewater account for 3-5% of global GHG emissions. Even though the waste management sector is thus responsible for only a small fraction of total GHG emissions, the amount of waste generated globally is expected to increase due to persisting wasteful production and consumption patterns and the failure to decouple waste generation from GDP. Nevertheless, improvements in waste management and overall avoidance, re-use and recycling of waste hold great potential for reducing GHG emissions also in other sectors such as agriculture, industry and manufacturing.
During waste management, GHG emissions occur directly through the process itself, as well as indirectly due to the use of energy. The largest share is emitted from landfills and during wastewater management. Uncontrolled burning of waste – still a common practice in many countries of the Global South – is another significant source. Besides contributing to climate change, waste generation, treatment and disposal have multiple other adverse environmental and social impacts that cannot be ignored.
The effectiveness of waste management can be improved through the incorporation of an understanding of gender differences and inequalities.
Waste generation and management on the household level is influenced both by the gendered division of labour and gendered consumption patterns. Improved waste management can provide support to women by easing their overall work burden. A healthy and clean environment decreases for example women’s caring responsibilities for sick people.
In many countries, local governments are in charge of managing waste, especially solid waste from private households. While there are elaborate waste management systems in place in most cities in high-income countries, these are lacking in middle- and low-income countries. Instead, waste collection and treatment is taken care of in a large informal sector encompassing a high share of women who make their living from waste collection and/or recycling.
Informal waste-pickers – who make a living collecting, sorting, recycling and selling valuable materials others have thrown away – perform 50-100% of waste collection in most cities in developing countries, at no cost to the municipal budget. But despite waste-pickers’ contribution to urban waste management, they often live and work under dangerous and unhealthy conditions and suffer from extreme poverty and very low social status. Women oftentimes bear the brunt of this work and suffer from marginalization while making only a fraction of what male waste pickers earn.
As informal waste picking and recycling is a viable option for poor people to secure their livelihood in many urban areas of the world, privatization of waste collection is reported to be the biggest threat to their income and economic empowerment. Where waste collection and treatment is transformed into formal work within the private sector, employment tends to be given primarily to men, excluding women and depriving them of this important source of income.
Waste management in the formal sector is a male domain, with predominantly men in decision-making positions. At the same time, some of the most unsafe work is done exclusively by men, such as ship-breaking which is among the world’s most dangerous industries.
In order to decrease GHG emissions from waste recovery, treatment and disposal, and minimizing its adverse environmental and social impacts, priority has to be given to the overall reduction and avoidance of waste. At the same time, re-use and recycling need to be increased and cradle-to-cradle solutions further expanded.
Effective waste management that meets the needs of both men and women has to incorporate gender analysis and the equal participation of men and women at each level of policy, programme and project development and implementation. A thorough understanding of gender dynamics and gendered division of labour is crucial in urban waste management and the interests of waste pickers making their living in the informal sector have to be taken into account in the process.
Furthermore, the export of hazardous waste – and increasingly of e-waste – to countries of the Global South has to be more strictly regulated. Corporations (as well as consumers) need to undertake responsibility along the full life-span of their products and cease to counteract stricter environmental regulations and workers’ rights in the recycling-markets in low-income countries. Stricter regulations for and control of the global trade with waste are badly needed.