Postcard from Dhaka: The women battling the scrap heap

Reducing floods and emissions, the female textile waste workers are the Bangladeshi capital’s unsung climate heroes, write Patrick Schröder and Prachi Singhal.

The World Today Published 2 February 2024 Updated 21 March 2024 3 minute READ

When we arrive in the Mirpur district of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, our eyes are caught by a long line of rickshaw carts and small lorries filled with textile waste bound for the sorting facilities. It is a Friday, officially the weekend, but the workshops are alive with activity. On nearby streets, boys play a game of cricket, providing a vivid backdrop to the toil of the female workers we are about to meet.

A female textile waste worker sits amid textile scraps in Dhaka, Bangladesh

A textile waste microentrepreneur sits in her shop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which she managed to open after 16 years working in the sector. Photo: Prachi Singhal and Patrick Schröder.

In the makeshift warehouses, these women in groups of five to 10 are sorting textile scraps, called jhut in Bangla, brought from all over Bangladesh to be packed into piles of overflowing sacks. As many as 12,000 people, mainly women, work in this way across Mirpur.

The textile industry is vital to Bangladesh’s economy, accounting for 85 per cent of all export revenue. In 2023, Bangladesh exported clothes worth $47 billion, a record, making it the second-largest garment exporter in the world. Globally, the textile industry is responsible for 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, about 10 per cent of global emissions. Currently, only 1 per cent of the material in clothing is recycled into new clothing.

Staggering waste

In Bangladesh, the scale of textile waste is staggering. Each year 500,000 tonnes of waste material are generated, creating an enormous environmental challenge. Yet jhut, made up of discarded cut offs, fabric scraps and fluff, has a significant value. According to estimates Bangladesh could earn up to $5 billion by recycling it to make other garments.

Surprisingly, textile waste management is largely handled informally and takes place in ramshackle warehouses. There is a stark difference between jhut sorting centres and the textile factories. More than 200 of Bangladesh’s textile factories have received certification from the US Green Building Council, an American non-profit organization, for their environmental initiatives.

By contrast, in the sorting facilities, our throats choke with dust and we are aware of a constant fire risk – bales of scraps block escape routes and no fire extinguishers are to be seen. The absence of ventilation and air conditioning makes the perilous conditions yet more challenging, especially in the summer when temperatures in Dhaka regularly hit 40C.

There are opportunities to make something better for yourself and your community, in even the worst of situations.

Female textile waste worker in Dhaka

Many of the women have been doing this work for years, tolerating the tough conditions and low pay because it provides a stable livelihood for their families. However, the gender income disparity is stark: women sorting jhut typically earn about BDT 6,000 (£42) a month, while their male counterparts can expect about BDT 17,000 (£121) a month. Dismayingly, when we ask about the pay gap a female worker says: ‘We have come to terms with this payment hierarchy, women are supposed to be paid less than men.’

The life of female jhut workers is being made more difficult by inflation that hit 12.5 per cent in October 2023, affecting food prices especially. ‘We do not expect much support from the government, we hope that we can continue our work and make a living without interference,’ says one woman who has sorted textile waste for more than a decade. ‘But we yearn for the day when our contributions are recognized, and our working conditions can become safer and more dignified.’

A waterway in Dhaka, Bangladesh, choked with textile waste choking one bank

Textile waste that can’t be recycled often ends up choking the waterways of Dhaka, exacerbating floods. Photo: Prachi Singhal and Patrick Schröder.

When it comes to climate change, the contribution of these women is overlooked. The production of one tonne of clothing materials produces roughly 20 to 23 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. By sorting each day an average of 40kg to 50kg of textile scraps and cut-offs, to be re-used for products such as mattresses and pillows, each woman’s contribution to climate mitigation is substantial. Over a year, the work of a single woman saves roughly 240 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Their work also helps to keep textile waste out of Dhaka’s drainage network which easily clogs and floods, especially in monsoon season. Such floods affect the majority of Dhaka’s population and scientists say climate change is making the monsoon stronger and more erratic.

Minimizing flood risks

In 2023, Dhaka and cities such as Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar were hit by two weeks of torrential rains causing floods and landslides that killed at least 55 people and affected a million more. By reusing textile waste, the women play a crucial role in minimizing flood risks.

Social entrepreneurs are trying to help. Our guide in Mirpur, Mamunur Rahman, founder of the Ella Pad initiative which offers alternative sources of income to women working with garment waste, tells us: ‘Women have been reusing garments scraps to produce sanitary products and we have been leading to mobilize them to have a voice.’

‘There are opportunities to make something better for yourself and your community, in even the worst of situations’, says one textile waste worker. Beaming with pride, she tells of working extra shifts for 16 years to be able to open her own small-scale sorting business.

Women are struggling to access garment scraps as the trade is being controlled by local mafia groups.

Nevertheless, says Rahman, it is becoming more difficult for women to access garment scraps as the trade of this resource is being controlled by local mafia groups. In the absence of effective regulation, illicit groups that enjoy protection from local politicians have moved in.

Despite the challenges the women face, there is a glimmer of hope. Acknowledging the need to address these issues, the government is slowly beginning to recognize the importance of the sector for the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of the country’s textile industry.

Several women at work with a small child in a textile waste warehouse in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In the absence of childcare support and facilities, female textile waste workers are often compelled to bring their children to work. Photo: Prachi Singhal and Patrick Schröder.

Furthermore, international development cooperation projects for sustainable circular textiles – such as those initiated by the European Union-funded Switch to Circular Value Chains programme led by the UN’s Industrial Development Organization, the German Development Cooperation GIZ and organizations such as Laudes Foundation – are exploring policies that could formalize activities and improve livelihoods and working conditions.

Fashion brands are also taking notice, recognizing the potential of textile waste and, importantly, responding to the requirements of impending EU legislation. Among a wide-ranging raft of reforms, the Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, first presented in 2022, demands recycled content in fashion products. Fully implemented, the strategy may bring wide environmental benefits.

Hopefully, it might open up new opportunities for those women in Dhaka’s dust-choked jhut sorting centres already offsetting the worst excesses of global fashion.