Let’s talk dirty! Waste, trash and recycling are a filthy business. Apologies if you were expecting another type of dirty talk, this will not be very hot and steamy. However, this might be informative and knowledge is sexy, right? 

Waste and waste management are topics that are often assumed to be gender neutral. This assumption is dangerous because without taking gender and intersectionality into consideration inequalities can thrive and already largely shape how waste is situated in social and economic systems. 

Let’s start by talking about households and waste. Recycling and composting have become increasingly important and households usually need to take care of sorting and taking out the trash in communities where sufficient waste management systems are in place. Research demonstrates that in heterosexual households, women are more likely than men to take care of housework which includes sorting and taking out the trash (unfortunately there is currently no research on other types of households). 

Taking care of household waste and recycling therefore is one of the tasks that add to women’s unpaid labour at home but unpaid housework and caretaking amounts to approximately $10 billion worldwide on an annual basis and mainly falls on women. Notably, although women are more likely to take care of the household waste, the division of labour in the waste management industry is split by conventional gender roles and stereotypes. Studies for example demonstrate that women are often limited to lower-income tasks such as waste separation, waste picking, and sweeping whilst men are more likely to be in high authority positions, decision-making positions and policymaking positions. 

Another issue with waste management relates to the fact that a considerable amount of waste is sent to countries in the Global South. This for example applies to e-waste from Europe which is often sent to countries in Africa and Asia, regularly via illegal markets. Handling e-waste can be very harmful and working conditions can thus be unsafe, especially in poorly regulated and illegal sectors. This can also disproportionately affect women as they are more likely to work in the lower-income jobs in the waste sector and thus likely to be working in those conditions. 

Radioactive waste is yet another type of waste that can be viewed through an intersectional lens. Radioactive waste comes from nuclear weapons and nuclear power production and is extremely dangerous. Indigenous Peoples have been disproportionately affected by radioactive waste because Indigenous lands are routinely used as dumping sites despite the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples disallowing the disposal and storage of hazardous materials without free, prior and informed consent. The targeted disposal of radioactive waste on Indigenous lands is thus part of what is called nuclear colonialism, a term that describes how Indigenous Peoples bear the main burden of the entire nuclear cycle. 

Over the past decades Indigenous Peoples have fought against the dumping of radioactive waste on their lands with non-Indigenous allies. Moreover, these resistance movements are usually led by women or significantly populated by women. This can be linked both to the well supported claim that women are more likely than men to be susceptible to radiation harms, and to the fact that the nuclear industry is dominated by men at all levels. 

Although the problems with waste are large in scope and disproportionately affecting marginalised groups, there is some good news. Waste and waste management are increasingly gaining attention through the gender lens and efforts to strengthen women’s position in the sector are somewhat in place. This will improve the entire sector, for example because women are more likely to take care of household waste and thus have valuable insight that can make waste management more effective. Moreover, by promoting women in decision making positions in the sector an opportunity to support and enhance gender equality overall arises. Let’s make sure that opportunity does not go to waste.