Circular Economy

Why gender is at the heart of transforming the plastics value chain

64% of itinerant waste-pickers in Ghana are women.

64% of itinerant waste-pickers in Ghana are women. Image: Elsie Odonkor

Elsie Odonkor
Ghana Gender Advisor, Ghana National Plastic Action Partnership
Katherine Gilchrist
Global Gender Equality & Inclusivity Advisor GPAP, Global Plastic Action Partnership
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• Women's role within the plastics value chain means they suffer greater economic and health impacts than men.

• In Ghana, women are under-represented in decision-making positions in plastic-related businesses and on regulatory bodies for the industry.

• Realizing a successful circular economy means addressing these inequalities.

When I tell people that I work as a gender adviser to a plastic pollution partnership, the first question I am often asked is: “Katie, what on earth does plastic have to do with gender equality?”

In fact, the plastics value chain is a near-perfect example of how gender norms and roles lead to inequalities when they are not addressed head-on. Even the material “plastic” is gendered. At least in the sense that the chemicals used to make it affect men and women differently, and if that is not taken into account when assessing safe levels of exposure, it can harm women disproportionately. Women’s bodies generally store a higher proportion of fat, which provides a greater reservoir for bioaccumulating and lipophilic (fat-loving) chemicals. Women exposed to these compounds often have higher concentrations of stored toxic chemicals in their bodies than men with similar exposure.

This relationship between gender and plastic is apparent just from the material itself. But what do we learn from looking more closely at plastic’s entire life cycle – research, use, collection, recycling and waste management? Women’s and men’s different gender roles at home and work lead to them being exposed to different degrees of hazardous plastic waste or chemical components. Women are often employed in the lower-paid and less skilled positions in production plants. This means that, even though there are fewer women than men in the plastics industry, women are more likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals.

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This is just one example of how gender issues manifest in the plastics value chain. But real-life case studies are invaluable in demonstrating the reality of how they affect the lives of individuals. My colleague in Ghana, Elsie Odonkor, has researched first-hand this impact within her country:

To have a clearer picture surrounding these gender inequalities, I interviewed over 150 actors along the plastics value chain – the findings have been essential in guiding the National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP) Action Plan in Ghana.

In Ghana, little data is available on labour force participation within the plastics value chain, of which men constitute about 61% and women about 39%. However their respective roles are not equal. Women work predominantly in the informal economy as itinerant waste-pickers (64%) and in recycling companies as washers and sorters (68%). The formal economy within the value chain, with greater protections, social security and higher status (i.e. waste management firms, plastic sourcing, production and manufacturing companies), had the lowest representation of female workforce (12%); men constitute 89% of plastics manufacturing and 92% of waste management workforce.

The plastics value chain workforce is relatively young in Ghana, with 67% aged between 18-35. However, 92% of female waste-pickers sampled in both landfill and communities were middle-aged compared to 75% of their male counterparts. Generally, waste-picking is considered a dirty job for street boys (or “kuborlor” in Ga dialect), so young women do not want to be associated with it.

However, for middle-aged women who are widowed or single mothers with no capital to start a business of their own, picking recyclables comes as the only means of survival. Working on the dumpsite is harsh; having to fiercely compete with young men for recyclables, enduring toxic, hazardous conditions is a daily struggle. As a result, they are unable to pick high quantities as compared to the men and are also often left with low-value recyclables. Female waste-pickers lack personal protective equipment, pushcarts, tricycles and storage facilities, and the majority use their bare hands. Men typically push the carts and have more access to tricycles compared to women.

Gender roles within the Ghanaian plastics sector
Gender roles within the Ghanaian plastics sector Image: NPAP

In moving toward the circular economy, Ghana will progress faster if waste-pickers are prioritized and supported by properly equipping them, establishing community buyback centres as well as standardizing the price of plastic waste. Recognizing and registering waste-pickers will also bring dignity and social protection to the work they do.

In both formal and informal sectors, most Ghanian women plastics workers occupy low-level positions: 74% work in areas such as production support, washing, sorting and packaging. Only about 7% of women are in decision-making positions and 19% in mid-level positions. Not many women business owners are found along the value chain, with about 80% of businesses owned by men. Typical women-owned businesses are informal recycling companies and NGOs with a focus on waste management. Access to finance is a major prerequisite to participate in almost all the sectors, with the exception of waste-picking, and is essential in starting a business along the value chain. Lack of finance and space or land to operate on is a major obstacle for women who want to enter plastics recycling. Most of the women actors have no collateral, which is usually in the form of land or fixed property, or cash that is requested by the finance companies.

As end users and community members, women are Ghana’s primary consumers of single use plastics. As the main cooks, caretakers and shoppers for their families, 70-80% of consumer purchasing decisions are made by women. They are the primary consumers of plastic bags when they purchase food and household items, and as vendors of other plastics to package, carry and sell a range of products and goods. Considering women’s decision-making roles in household purchasing, disposal and management of waste, they are key actors to consider in reducing plastic pollution.

Despite this, women’s voices are vastly under-represented in decision-making positions related to plastic pollution in Ghana. The plastics sector is regulated by three ministries, and the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Each ministry has more men than women within the decision-making ranks, and the EPA has just one woman on the board. The unequal representation of women in regulatory institutions limits the impact of women on policy decisions.

This under-representation within Ghana is replicated all over the world. Globally, the voices of women and other marginalized communities in the lowest wealth quintiles, the people hardest hit by the forces that drive global dependence on plastic, are rarely included in discussions about policy and solutions.

But dismantling these inequalities is possible so long as gender is addressed within each aspect of the plastics value chain in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Many studies indicate that women’s attitudes toward plastic pollution and the prioritization of health and profit lead to different, more environment-positive behaviours and decision-making. It will be impossible to achieve a truly sustainable and inclusive world free of plastic pollution, without consulting and addressing the challenges of women and marginalized communities. As Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Environment and Climate Change for Canada and one of GPAP's donors, says: “While women, migrants, Indigenous Peoples, and low-income populations are more likely to be negatively affected by plastic pollution, they are also a driving force of positive change, leadership, and innovation in their communities. Canada is proud to support Global Plastic Action Partnership’s efforts to reduce plastic pollution in a way that empowers all. We encourage greater gender inclusiveness and social justice in national policies on plastic waste.”

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The Global Plastic Action Partnership is determined to take a gender-responsive approach, because it is the only truly effective and sustainable option. That is why GPAP has developed a gender-mainstreaming guidance for stakeholders within the plastic pollution action space and the national partnership in Ghana has published a Gender Analysis of the Plastics and Plastic Waste Sectors in Ghana. GPAP is sharing these two resources as widely as possible, not only to hold ourselves accountable to our own targets, but as resources to be critiqued, adopted by others and made better. This level of gender consideration can no longer be optional and the plastic pollution action space must work together to live up to these goals. The success of the circular plastics economy depends on it.

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