Changing Planet

The Strong & Subtle: Women in Waste Management

I have a theory. Taiwan’s waste management system is dependent on a subtle, strong, yet almost invisible force–women.

Walk into a bathroom in any Taipei City subway stop and you’ll see an older woman in a bright green or orange vest moving seamlessly in and out of the stalls, a pair of tongs in hand. Come back to that same station and you’ll see her pushing a black cart, reaching into the recycling bin, pulling out P.E.T. plastic bottles and aluminum cans, sorting the trash into different colored plastic bags.

Her job? To make sure the station is spotless, odorless, and adheres to recycling standards.

Her age? She could be your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.

Elegant lines of life experience frame her face. Swirls of black curls peak from behind her ears; a white face mask slings across her mouth, part of the uniform to protect her from unwanted germs. A hard set brown sits in her eyes as she looks up at you, a brief glance that says without pity or pride: “This is my job.”

it is Her statement of acceptance: someone has to do it.

These women struck a chord in me. Maybe it’s their age, their sense of duty, or perhaps it’s the way they operate–in silence, with diligence, almost invisible to the accustomed eye. And yet, they are an essential component to the clean look and lifestyle taken for granted in Taipei City, simply because they’re there, managing waste without praise or fanfare.

“Oba-chans:” Neighborhood Trash-Sorting Ladies

It isn’t just the subway stations. I saw iterations of this strong, working older woman in the Liuzhangli, Zhongxiao Dunhua, Guting, Mingde neighborhoods of Taipei, then in Tainan, Taichung, all the major cities.

She appears suddenly, back slightly hunched, wearing a wide-brimmed woven hat, stacking flattened cardboard pieces, one, two, three, ten, twenty, on the back of her bicycle, each piece balanced perfectly with practiced precision, bound together by a rubber tire reused from an old bike.

A CD dangles from the back of her tattered seat, reflecting incoming light from taxis, buses, street lamps, to protect her as she rides to the nearest recycling station. The daily exchange: money for environmentalism.

She lives the concept of reduce, reuse, and recycle.

I once tried to help a woman whose cardboard fell from the back of her bike. She looked to be somewhere in her late 70’s, arms thin and patterned with golden brown skin folds. As I bent down, fingers about to touch the fallen board, she stopped me. She could do it. No help needed.

Age means nothing. These women are strong, experienced, and know exactly what they want. Locally, they are called “oba-chans,” a Japanese term of endearment meaning “grandma.” (The word hearkens back to a colonial past when Japan occupied Taiwan.)

To Taiwanese, they are part of a familiar landscape sweeping through neighborhoods, picking up cardboard boxes from businesses and plastic bottles from individual households. They move quickly, appearing in one street, disappearing into the next, glimpses of a past generation, living representations of a colonial history.

Beyond the streets, these older women manage waste everywhere from inside apartment building stairwells to subway station restrooms and side allies. They tear through plastic bags of trash to pull out recyclables, collaborate with small business owners to manage leftover inventory; somehow, they’re always hands-deep in post-use, post-throw waste. So naturally, I couldn’t help but ask myself: why was it primarily women?

The answer, I came to find, involves Confucian social values, money-making, and an intrinsic desire to take care of the family.

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Doing the Dirty Work

It was the middle of March. I was sitting on a faux leather couch inside a small office attached to a PLA plastics factory. Adjacent to me was the 65-year old owner of the export-oriented business, his arms folded, cellphone constantly buzzing in the breast pocket of his blue and black jumpsuit.

We were in the middle of Miaoli County, famous in Taiwan for its strawberries and small family-owned manufacturing factories. He was explaining Taiwan’s role in the global plastics market to me:

“Taiwan took America’s plastic recycling before China. The person who just called me said that he had 100 tons of plastic recycling from America, and asked if I wanted to take it or not. The reason why America sends plastic recycling to other countries is because it is not economical to recycle domestically. In the U.S., the recycling process involves high cost because of workers’ salaries.

“Besides, neither Americans nor Taiwanese want to work for factories in recycling picking jobs.” He paused and looked at me. His implicit meaning–these kinds of jobs are dirty, low-class, and in Taiwan, don’t make good money.

I thought about all the women I had seen picking up trash, sorting it with their gloved hands, doing the work no one really wanted to do. Was there a special link between women and waste, cultural identity and social responsibility?

 

Confucian Influence & Modern Legislation

When I posed the question to my Chinese teacher, she explained that during dynastic times, women (性) were confined to traditional gender roles. If a baby girl was born into a family, she was considered “useless,” because the prevailing notion was that as soon as she grew up, she would marry and move into another man’s home to take care of his parents and household. Until that time, all she did was eat her father’s rice. She was a burden whose life was governed by three prevailing principles:

  • 再家從父 (Zài jiā cóng fù) – While you live at home, before marriage, listen and obey your father.
  • 出家從夫 (Chūjiā cóng fū) – When you leave home and marry, listen and obey your husband. Whatever your husband says, you do. (先生說什麼就做什麼.)
  • 夫死從子 (Fū sǐ cóng zǐ) – When your husband dies, listen to your son.

As such, women were groomed to be obedient and hard-working. They were responsible for taking care of their families. According to the book, Women in the New Taiwan: Gender Roles and Gender Consciousness in a Changing Society, “women were socially molded with a deep sense of themselves as family members whose needs were no longer solely or personally theirs.”

Times have clearly changed since the period of dynastic rule. In just the 20th century alone, the island passed hands from Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945) to marital law under the Kuomingtang (1945-1987). The 1947 R.O.C. Constitution became Taiwan’s legal foundation, and in Article 7, included: “All citizens of the Republic of China, irrespective of sex, religion, race, class, or party affiliation, shall be equal before the law.”

In 1987, Taiwan transitioned to a rule-of-law society, and laws were created to enshrine equal rights between men and women:

  • 1992 – Amendment to Constitutional Articles: “The State shall protect the dignity of women, safeguard their personal safety, eliminate sexual discrimination, and further substantive gender equality.”
  • 1992 – Employment Services Act: “ensure national’s equal opportunity in employment, to include clauses that prohibit employers from committing gender discrimination, to provide allowance or benefits, when necessary, for women who have to support families.”
  • 2002 – The Part of Family of the Civil Code: “the matrimonial property system [and] safeguard married women’s rights to freely manage their property.”
Women sorting recyclables in the Da Fon Recycling Plant — Chiayi County, Taiwan. (Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat)

Social Value & Gender Identity

But amidst legal gains, old social habits and perceptions persisted.

In one-on-one conversations with my Chinese teachers, I caught flashes of continued Confucian influence–some moved with a delicate grace, every movement and spoken word refined and coated in polite mannerisms, reflecting a home environment where women were groomed to speak softly and listen to others. Others shared how during their childhood, they were told not to dream big, ask questions, or pursue greater things in life because of their gender. Still others told stories of how their fathers wouldn’t allow their mothers to work out of fear and jealousy of the rising opportunity and freedom for their spouses.

Such stories made me think about the formative influences and social consequences for women in the older generation, especially the ones working on the front lines of waste. In the past, opportunities for women were limited socially, economically, educationally. Women reaching their 70s and 80s today did not grow up in a law-based, equality-driven social environment; their developmental influences came from a blend of traditional Chinese, Japanese and indigenous cultures that emphasized familial duty while subtly pointing to their lack of worth.

Yet in watching these women work, I couldn’t help but sense a strong, underlying desire to take care of their families, their communities, their home.

Political Climate & Policy Advocacy

The shift to a more open and free society gave rise to citizen-organized associations. Seizing on the influx of political freedom, they lobbied officials for policy change and took charge of education in their respective communities.

Homemakers United Foundation (主婦聯盟環境保護基金會) emerged as Taiwan’s first all-women led environmental advocacy group in 1987. What began as a group of housewives concerned by the negative environmental effects of Taiwan’s industrialization–mass air pollution, truckloads of waste thrown irresponsibility onto random street corners– transformed into Taiwan’s most influential environmental civil society association.

H.U.F. attempted to incorporate nature into people’s perceptions of family, extending feelings of responsibility to include not only family members but all of life itself.

Drawing on a mother’s sense of responsibility to take care of her extended family (children, neighbors, nature) and women’s empowerment to better the health and environment of her community, H.U.F. succeeded in transforming Taiwan’s waste management system to what we see today.

Among their long list of accomplishments includes:

  • Lobbying & Advocacy – H.U.F. pressured legislators to pass legislation promoting P.E.T. bottle recycling, banning polystyrene foam (now prohibited in the food and beverage industry), and mandating the recycling of materials including aluminum, paper and plastic bottles.
  • Mandatory Sorting & Recycling Program – Due to H.U.F.’s efforts, recycling practices were adopted nationwide in 2006 to include the modern-day system of separating recyclables from non-recyclables and wet garbage.
  • Composting Program – H.U.F.’s pilot composting program became the model for Taiwan’s pan-island composting system that sends kitchen waste to pigs farms for fertilization and animal feed.
  • Environmental Health Traffic Light Evaluation System – H.U.F. developed a color code system to publicly rate the quality of local environments around the island. (Green = good, Yellow = acceptable, Red – Immediate change needed.)

Survival and Purpose

Then for some women, there’s the money aspect. For many who lacked educational resources growing up, finding work and making a living to support oneself and family is tough. Add the inevitable process of aging, a stagnant economy, and the need to continue to provide value for one’s family, and you get a generation of women who work in waste.

From MRT sanitation workers to neighborhood recycling “oba-chans” and apartment building cleaners, these women wake up early each morning, stay up late each night (I’ve seen some women on neighborhood recycling runs at 1am – 2am), to sweep up, pick up, and sort through trash.

Recycling is a business after all. Recycling plants pay by weight for used materials they can sell to companies looking for recycled materials. That means cardboard and P.E.T. bottles are always in demand.

Knowing that this sub-market exists, these women use their own strength to clean, sort and exchange our waste to make a livelihood. If they can move, they’ll move. If they can lift, they will lift.

The byproduct? Cleaner neighborhoods, a ‘more circular’ waste management system, and an almost unconscious reliance on a whole generation of aging women who do what we all should be doing but are often too lazy to do.

I dub these women the “Sorting Queens,” the elders operating in the waste management system post-consumption, post-use.


“女綠” 
Gen: Taiwan’s Rising Green Social Entrepreneurs

But the Sorting Queens are not alone. Taiwan’s “女綠” (Nǚ lǜ) is a new generation of young, highly educated Taiwanese women (女性- Nǚxìng) who are leveraging their skills and passion for the environment to build and lead green (綠色 – lǜsè) start-ups, networks, businesses, and nonprofits.

Examples of powerful, rising organizations and their leaders include:

  • Taiwan’s Circular Economy Network – Shadow Chen, CEO
  • DOMI Earth (green energy company) – Tammy Hu, Co-Founder
  • REnato lab (trash-to-resource engineering firm) – Ouyang Aining, COO
  • 好盒器 – Taiwan’s first glass to-go cup-sharing program among collaborating restaurants & cafes
  • 憨吉胖– Tainan’s first vegan bakery with ingredients sourced 100% from local farmers – April Brazier, Owner
  • CULTU-RE – Recycling design firm with a focus on bags, notebooks and shirts made out of 100% recycled material
  • 午營咖啡 a break cafe – Environment and community-focused cafe that promotes eco-friendly products made by Taiwanese entrepreneurs and hosts public education talks
  • Citizens of the Earth – Nonprofit environmental justice advocacy organization that conducts research & lobbying for a greener, cleaner Taiwan
  • Da Fon Environmental Technology – Recycling company that transforms recyclables into new products. They also have a recycling drop-off store & Zero-to-Zero APP

In all my interviews with these women, I’ve asked the same question over and over again:
“Why do you care about the environment? Why are you doing this kind of environmental work?”

And the response I get each time without FAIL:
“Because I care. The earth is our only home. I needed to do something, so that’s why I’m doing this.”

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Volunteer Force

The desire to do good for the environment doesn’t just pertain to those who work. Across the island, women volunteer every day to separate colored from clear plastic bottles, cut white sections from inked paper, or coordinate community recycling programs for local city government.

Most notable are the women of Tzu Chi, a Buddhist organization with a massive force of volunteers ranging from 10 to over 90 years old. Volunteers receive recyclables from community members at local stations, from which they then sort, shift, and break-down to recycle.

Tzu Chi’s environmental arm is most famous for its recycling of P.E.T. bottles. Once the bottle caps, plastic rings, plastic label coating and colored containers are separated by volunteers, the bottles are  sent to Da Ai, the entrepreneurial arm of the organization, and transformed into rescue blankets, solar-powered backpacks and hats, and traditional Chinese clothing.

Taipei City government also hosts a volunteer-run recycling center at a local mall every month. Here, citizens come and exchange old household items and recyclables for free food and toiletries provided by the government. A team of volunteers, run primarily by women, record, weigh, and sort each item collected. Everything from broken fans and old TVs to glass bottles and coffee bean jars is exchanged for salt, trash bags, dish soap, milk cartons, and sardines.

 

Taiwan’s Foundation and Future

It is easy to take cleanliness for granted, to ignore the few doing the dirty, albeit important, work for all. But without those operating the background, in the streets, in small offices, armed with metal tongs and whiteboard markers, Taiwan would not look (or smell) the way it does today.

While men also play a part, the sheer volume of women in each layer of the system, spanning multiple generations and positions, is undeniable. Their collective strength, tenacity, and perseverance bring them to do what few want to do.

Driven by duty, love, and a sense of responsibility, many of these women see “environmental protection as social obligation.” For some, it is also a way to continue making a living; for others, it is simply a way to feel fulfilled and have purpose.

And thanks to their efforts, the Sorting Queens, 女綠 Social Entrepreneurs, policy advocates and volunteers are transforming Taiwan’s waste landscape pre-throw and post-throw. They are the foundation of Taiwan’s waste management system and the future of Taiwan’s environmental success. 

 

**Thank you to Erica Lin for translating the interview with the PLA Factory Owner.

Lillygol Sedaghat is a multi-media environmental journalist and speaker focusing on the intersection among science, systems, and people. Previously, she was a Fulbright–National Geographic Digital Storyteller documenting Taiwan’s waste management system, plastics recycling and circular economy initiatives. She is an active contributor to National Geographic's Planet or Plastic? global campaign and creates music videos, info-graphics, and maps to transform people's perceptions of trash from something disposable to something valuable. Lillygol has spoken at UN World Environment Day, Influence Nation Summit DC, and National Geographic on her research. She completed a B.A. in Political Economy from the University of California, Berkeley and was named 5 Under 25: Leaders in U.S.-China Relations.

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