Balancing the bins: Gender equity in waste management

October 26, 2023
Alejandra Dueñas
x min read

Environmental issues do not exist in a vacuum; they are inextricably linked to social concerns. To be truly effective and create lasting change, solutions to environmental crises must also tackle social issues too. Here at Seven Clean Seas we recognise that waste inequality wasn't solely an environmental problem but also a social one. And, that the formal employment of community members in the waste management sector was key to addressing this issue.

Seven Clean Seas holistic approach to sustainability not only mitigates the environmental issues around plastic pollution, but is a strategy that also focuses on the people that are in the frontline of the problem- our plastic collection crew and the communities that we serve.

In the research on the impact of plastic pollution on communities to develop a Social Impact Strategy, we uncovered a critical issue: women are profoundly affected by the plastic pollution crisis, yet they are significantly underrepresented both in the formal waste management sector and in decision-making roles. Addressing the challenges women face requires a multifaceted approach that acknowledges and addresses the specific barriers they encounter in the waste sector and beyond. By empowering women and promoting gender equity, we can break down barriers preventing women from accessing formal employment in the waste management sector. Additionally, since women often manage households, targeting them for engagement and education on plastic pollution can lead to better consumption and disposal habits, as well as primary caretakers, educate the future generations on the importance of sustainability.

But before we take down the barriers that affect participation, we need to understand what these barriers are.

That is why, last month, Seven Clean Seas organised a series of workshops with our crew and the community in Bintan and Batam to understand what are the gender-specific challenges or barriers faced in entering and working in the waste management sector. Although these workshops were initially focused around women, they evolved into powerful community and crew engagement activities that allowed us to gather collective community knowledge on plastic pollution and develop tailored solutions to address their needs.

What we’ve learned

The local context matters:

While our projects are situated on two closely neighbouring Indonesian islands, just a short 30-minute boat ride apart, they exhibit marked disparities in their approaches to waste management and the role of women. Despite their cultural similarities, the primary economic activities on each island diverge significantly. Batam serves as an industrial hub, while Bintan stands as a paradise for resorts. The dominance of these industries has moulded the community's perceptions of gender roles. In Batam, where the industrial and factory sectors are prominent, men often find themselves more suitable or preferred by employers due to the physical demands of these roles. Conversely, in the tourism-centric Bintan, women play a vital role in various positions, such as housekeepers, receptionists, and food servers, and their contributions are highly valued. In terms of gender roles, the Batam community tends to emphasize women's importance in household caretaking, whereas in Bintan, the focus leans more toward women's financial independence and active participation in the workforce. These differing perspectives have a substantial impact on women's involvement in the job market and, naturally, in the formal waste management sector. This example underscores the critical importance of understanding the local context when implementing solutions to break down barriers. What may prove effective in one location might not necessarily yield the same results in another.

The importance of capacity building and education for our crew:

While our plastic collection initiatives have indeed made a significant impact within the communities where we operate, the pervasive use and improper disposal of plastic is an underlying issue which is proving challenging to address. Nonetheless, our interactions with the community and our crew have highlighted the profound influence of the daily collection efforts. These actions serve as a constant reminder to the community about the significance of plastic pollution. To further engage the community and effectively convey the gravity of this issue, we must empower our crew with the knowledge, tools, and skills required to advocate for change. As integral members of the community, they possess the potential to drive transformation and inspire meaningful action. Not only by leading by example through the collection activities, but also engaging in dialogue with the communities.

However, this can only be achieved when they are equipped with a thorough understanding of the problem and the ability to communicate it confidently.

Engaging women is necessary to reduce plastic pollution:

One of the most significant revelations stemming from our workshops is the key role that women play in addressing the plastic crisis. In both Bintan and Batam, women typically bear the primary responsibility for managing households. This places them at the centre of decisions regarding plastic use and disposal practices. When we enable women to make more informed choices and help them recognize the crucial role they play in mitigating the plastic crisis, we unlock a powerful avenue for preventing and reducing plastic waste. Their influence over the daily choices made within households goes beyond affecting their families but also the broader community and environment. By engaging, educating, and empowering women, we not only improve their own lives but also pave the way for a responsible use and disposal of plastic for generations to come.

The people confronting the problem, also know the solutions:

Finally, these workshops showed that a lot of the community and the crew have great ideas on how to best address the problem. It is imperative to take an approach of Radical Listening (which we learned from another amazing NGO, Health in Harmony). The people who understand the interconnections and know how to solve problems are the people who are experiencing these problems. From education to community engagement workshops, the people who attended the workshops were filled with ideas on how to create change. Ideas that we may have never thought about, because we are not living in the day-to-day politics of the plastic waste problem.

What's next?

Now, we are going to take all these lessons and findings from the workshop to actually come up with a plan to ensure that Seven Clean Seas impact will benefit the communities too, and by doing so, we can actually generate the long-term change that the plastic pollution crisis requires. From upskilling our crew to empowering women, we believe that we can create an approach that will not only mitigate environmental issues but also drive sustainable development. As we continue to learn and grow our projects and presence in areas most affected by plastic pollution, the workshops' findings remind us that the key to solving the plastic crisis lies within those groups at the frontline of the problem

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