The Incubation Network delivered Inclusive Markets programs, which supported 22 projects over a period of 12 to 18 months.
For those living in countries across South and Southeast Asia, plastic waste pollution is highly visible. To the general public, however, the informal waste workers (IWWs) who play a critical role in waste management and recycling (WMR) are far less visible and often unrecognized and unsupported by governments and society. This occurs despite global estimates indicating that the informal sector handles 58% of all plastic waste collected and recycled (GRID-Arendal, 2022); a clear sign that IWWs’ contribution to tackling the plastic waste crisis far surpasses the capacity of some current formal waste management systems.
In addition to significantly preventing waste leakage into the environment, these workers help to establish and strengthen circular economies through the resale of post-consumer materials, and reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills or is incinerated, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The informal WMR sector also generates immense economic opportunities for its workforce, which mostly comprises marginalized members of society. Considering the sector’s enormous environmental and socio-economic impact, enabling IWWs to continue providing their vital services while improving their working conditions and livelihoods is essential.
Harnessing the power of our regional network
With the goals of supporting innovative solutions to plastic pollution, catalyzing action and investment in circular economies, and reinforcing effective and equitable waste value chains, we partnered with non-profit organization, The Circulate Initiative, to create The Incubation Network.
From 2019 to 2022, our joint initiative brought together innovators, investors, civil society organizations, and government leaders to design and deliver programs focused on inclusive and gender-responsive waste management and circular economy solutions in India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
By its conclusion in March 2023, The Incubation Network had supported 358 startups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), 40% of which were women-led. We distributed US$2.8 million in funding, and arranged over 1,300 hours of mentorship for our members by close to 200 industry experts. The startups and SMEs we supported collectively raised an additional US$63 million in funding, and diverted 148,257 metric tons of plastic waste from the environment over the initiative’s lifetime.
The Inclusive Markets portfolio and impact
Building a more enabling ecosystem for women and other marginalized groups in WMR was central to all of The Incubation Network’s programming, and was also the main target of our ‘Inclusive Markets’ programs, which supported 22 projects over a period of 12 to 18 months. These projects aimed to improve the livelihoods and working conditions of the informal waste sector while also improving waste recovery; some also sought to better understand and support the role of women in WMR. Our diverse project partners ranged from women-led social enterprises and for-purpose companies in India to NGOs seeking justice for vulnerable communities in Vietnam.
As well as providing funding, we regularly monitored each project’s progress and engaged technical assistance when necessary. We also regularly brought project partners together virtually to network, discuss common challenges, best practices and funding opportunities, and collate feedback.
By the end of our program period, the Inclusive Markets projects had collectively reached 90,489 households and collected and sorted an additional 27.3 metric tons of plastic waste. For the projects that had a non-zero baseline for waste collection, the average percentage increase in plastic waste collected monthly was 39%.
In total, the projects reached 1,574 IWWs, 73% of whom were women. Equipped with specially developed assessment tools to evaluate the projects’ impact on the workers’ lives and livelihoods, we surveyed 229 workers (59% of whom were women), which produced encouraging results: 92% reported an increase in access to dignified work, and 85% reported an increase in access to benefits and support services, as a result of the project activities and investments.
Key insights from local experts
The partnerships we developed through the Inclusive Markets programs gave us genuine insight into the functioning of waste systems in South and Southeast Asia; the risks and opportunities associated with the informal waste sector; and key practical interventions for building inclusive innovation ecosystems around plastic waste. We learned that:
- The informal waste sector is diverse and wise. While the majority of the region’s IWWs are women experiencing poverty and discrimination, the informal waste sector contains diverse experiences and motivations that must be considered when more powerful actors are attempting to shift parts within the system. IWWs are experts in waste collection and sorting, and many feel proud of the critical role they play in preserving the environment and maintaining public health, as well as the flexibility and independence the waste trade affords them. While gender discrimination can compound the challenges they face in their work, the unique role of women as consumers, household decision-makers, and community leaders also makes them potentially powerful catalysts for changing waste management. Efforts by our project partners to build the capacity and influence of women in the waste value chain represent an exciting and patient journey towards better gender equality and circularity.
- Waste aggregators are often seeking justice for, and productivity gains from, the informal waste sector. They need support in unlocking its potential. Many of our project partners were SMEs relying on informal collectors for waste material, and actively providing additional support to local waste picker communities. This can include distributing personal protective equipment and information for safer work, lobbying municipal governments to provide social protection to IWWs, delivering training, and installing equipment to make sorting operations more efficient. However, such activities draw on those aggregator SMEs’ limited resources, whose business models are typically under pressure due to low and highly volatile market prices. For recycled plastic supply chains to be both responsible and financially sustainable, aggregators and other allies of marginalized groups require more support to formalize supply, connect to upstream and downstream actors, extract value from more types of waste, and access patient and appropriate financing mechanisms that support their growth. Without ecosystem actors coming together to achieve this, the waste economy will continue to rely on substandard payments to an informal and unjust collection system, and not achieve the necessary levels of feedstock for recycling.
- Small interventions can have an outsized impact. Projects by our partners in both the private sector and civil society have shown that even relatively small investments of funding and energy can catalyze meaningful change, particularly when paired with municipal government support. We have witnessed our partners using identification cards and branded uniforms to provide legitimacy to IWWs in certain spaces, allowing them to access better waste material and experience less social discrimination and harassment. Similarly, simple tweaks to promote better waste segregation behavior by households, or dividers installed in trucks so that wet and dry waste can be separated, can have significant impact on WMR outcomes in a community.
- Digital technologies can enable more efficient and responsible market functioning, but require significant time, investment, and trust. In addition to the optimization of waste segregation and collection, our partners made it clear that the payment of service fees by waste generators is critical to the financial sustainability of their business models. These components can all be supported by digital technology that is used to share information, generate demand, collect data, handle transactions, monitor systems, generate reports, and track and trace supply chains. While our partners are using a range of technology from simple chat groups to sophisticated marketplace apps, it is clear that investment in this area must account for significant usage barriers and the lack of trust felt by groups in the ‘first mile’ of the supply chain, who have long been taken advantage of by more powerful actors and are at risk of being further excluded by formalization processes.
- Those of us looking to support more inclusive WMR systems should be both ambitious and patient. Our findings indicate that the best overall results for the informal waste sector come from the dual pursuit of better outcomes for marginalized groups and better waste recovery rates. Rather than isolated efforts toward better social and economic conditions for IWWs, we are encouraged to recognize them as integral market actors and ensure they are deliberately included in more holistic efforts to build better WMR systems. We also found that longer periods of support and larger funding amounts yielded exponentially greater impacts, in a sector that has both enormous need and potential.
GRID-Arendal (2022). A Seat at the Table: The Role of the Informal Recycling Sector in Plastic Pollution Reduction, and Recommended Policy Changes. GRID-Arendal.