Nature and Biodiversity

How Nigerian women are leading national action against plastic pollution

A woman working in a recycling centre helping to reduce plastic pollution in Nigeria

Women play a crucial role in transforming Nigeria’s plastics value chain and reducing plastic pollution Image: Photo by Gideon Oladimeji on Unsplash Save

Priscilla M. Achakpa
Global Gender Equality & Inclusivity Advisor, National Plastic Action Partnership (NPAP)
Katherine Gilchrist
Global Gender Equality & Inclusivity Advisor GPAP, Global Plastic Action Partnership
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  • Nigeria is putting women and people from disadvantaged communities front and centre in its fight against plastic pollution.
  • Earlier in 2023, the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) conducted a national gender, equity and inclusion analysis of plastic pollution in Nigeria.
  • The GPAP is advocating for the development of the UN plastics treaty to be similarly led by the voices of those most affected by the plastics crisis.

Nigeria is putting women and people from disadvantaged communities front and centre in the fight against plastic pollution choking its cities, waterways and rural communities. This is a seismic shift from the way the plastics crisis has been approached until now. In a global industry that has traditionally embraced top-down solutions from policymakers, Nigeria is instead asking those most affected by plastics pollution, such as those living in informal housing and working in informal conditions, women picking waste at dumpsites and communities living where plastics accumulate and are discarded, to lead the National Roadmap for Reducing Plastics Pollution.

This shift to bottom-up solutions is key to the success of building a sustainable circular plastics economy and improving waste management systems. These diverse groups of people with an intimate connection to the plastic crisis, are the experts in a fight that requires innovative, locally-informed solutions and a human-centred approach.


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Tapping into the plastics value chain

Earlier this year, a group of researchers in Nigeria, commissioned by the Government through the Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), conducted a national gender, equity and inclusion analysis of plastic pollution in Nigeria. The researchers consulted communities in five states from North to South, speaking to women and men from Indigenous communities and ethnic minority settlers, people living in informal housing settlements, people living in poverty, those displaced by the conflict in Northern Nigeria and agrarian communities with ethnically marginalised populations. The researchers picked those communities, and particularly women in those communities, due to their close connection to the plastics value chain. Women, for example, do the majority of generation, storage and collection of household waste (81%, 96% and 91% respectively) and yet they have not historically been integrated into the management of household waste at the policy level.

Itinerant waste pickers (informal collectors) of whom 78% are internally displaced persons, mostly women and teenage boys who fled Boko Haram and settled in informal settlements and slums, do the everyday job of picking up discarded plastics on the roadside and dumpsites and washing and sorting each individual piece of broken and discarded plastic. Those in the lowest wealth quintiles and from disadvantaged populations live where plastic is made and where discarded plastics accumulate. The researchers set out to understand what these communities, most intimately connected to the plastics crisis, had to say and what solutions they would propose.

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Sharing lived experiences

What they learned is that ensuring plastics don’t enter the ecosystem is nothing new for these green heroes. They have been doing this, often stigmatised and dangerous work, without recognition, decent pay or security for generations. Their lived experiences, shared with the researchers in hundreds of hours of interviews, uncovered the need to treat the plastic crisis as a human one, considering the experiences, needs and obstacles faced by the most affected communities. This will support them to continue diverting plastic from waterways and communities and help them to scale up and find better ways to do their work in safer, more equitable and healthier conditions.

Despite an underrepresentation of women in the plastics industry in general, the research indicates that women in Nigeria occupy 99% of menial, under-paid and direct-contact with plastics jobs, such as sorting, washing and labelling, and they occupy 78% of the formal itinerant waste-picking jobs with recycling companies as ad-hoc staff picking PET bottles and other recyclable products. They face harassment, lack social security and other protections and rarely receive support related to childcare and unpaid domestic work.

Women lead the way against plastic pollution

Despite significant obstacles, women in Nigeria lead the charge in plastic waste innovation by converting hard-to-recycle plastic waste, such as nylon water sachets, into eco-friendly products. However, they face a challenge in expanding to large-scale production units due to a lack of capital and access to finance. This lack of access to financial services also prevents them from starting or growing businesses. This is stressed by the findings that men dominate the ownership of micro-enterprises (98.4%) and, in contrast, women are the largest owners of sole proprietorship businesses at 50.9%. This implies that women tend to own petty trading businesses that yield lower incomes.

These obstacles to accessing finance in many cases can be traced to legal discrimination against women (e.g. legal restrictions in their ability to work, head a household, choose where to live and receive inheritance) and gender norms, roles and relations (e.g. the level of violence against women and the incidence of early marriage for women, less educational or income opportunities provided to women). The researchers found, for example, that the majority of business owners they met with emphasised that their companies are self-funded. The lack of access to finance is aggravated by women being restricted access to traditional collateral, such as land demanded by financial institutions for collateral.

Women hit financial roadblocks

Women owners also noted that although financial institutions, such as the Bank of Industry, offer credit facilities to businesses to invest, they demand high double-digit interest rates and tangible immovable properties as collateral, thus limiting access, as women lack equal ownership rights to immovable properties in Nigeria. Achieving equality in financial inclusion is an important way of unlocking resources for economic empowerment and encouraging growth, by enhancing access to economic opportunity for wider segments of society.

The researchers concluded that supporting women and disproportionately affected communities to lead as market actors will strengthen efforts to realise a circular economy for plastics, considering the essential role they already play in the value chain. To do this, many recommendations were put forward, including financial, organizational, resources and political support for communities already undertaking this work and social and physical protection policies that consider the diverse needs of women and other workers from disadvantaged communities. These solutions are practical and sustainable and consider the reality of the plastics crisis, mapping the full range of diverse stakeholders.

Launching the Nigeria Circular Economy Road Map

The launch of the Nigeria Circular Economy Road Map (NCERM), the guiding document in the fight again plastics pollution in Nigeria, is expected later this year. With the voices from this recent study underpinning each recommended action, we will see a shift in priorities, including the de-stigmatisation of informal waste collections and waste collectors, the recognition of women’s unpaid and underpaid labour and the need for their inclusion in policy. We will also see an emphasis on the protection of informal workers and their inclusion in any formalisation efforts. This bottom-up approach, developed by the multi-stakeholder partnership, GPAP, is also being implemented through similar studies in 7 countries across the world.

GPAP works to ensure diverse and inclusive perspectives are present across our work so that public and private actors take inclusive action to tackle plastic pollution. We recognise that all actions have an impact on the communities where they take place. All this considered, it will be key to advocate for the development of the UN plastics treaty to be similarly led by the voices of those most affected by the plastics crisis. They can provide the knowledge, solutions and accountability that is so often missing from plastics policymaking.

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