My Journey Working with the Unsung Heroes of the Circular Economy - Building Markets

My Journey Working with the Unsung Heroes of the Circular Economy

by Yin Yin Wint
June 5, 2024

Before I began working at Building Markets, recycling businesses were hardly on my radar. I saw them in my neighborhood every day, but they were just part of the background. The only time I noticed them was when my mom would sell our old notebooks every summer to the nearest small junk shop for a bit of pocket money when I was in school.

In 2020, I joined Building Markets in Myanmar as a Business Verification Officer. My main job was to conduct business verification surveys for all types of junk shops, aggregators, preprocessors, recyclers, and manufacturers of recyclable materials. In other words, I was diving into the entire waste and recycling sector in Myanmar. The goal was to connect these small businesses with opportunities to grow.

At first, I thought it would be easy. I just had to talk to business owners, get some answers, and link them to resources. I soon realized how wrong I was. This sector was a whole new world. These businesses had always been there, but they were unnoticed, especially the junk shop owners. I learned that some felt like outsiders, embarrassed by their work with waste and trash. Some were even hesitant to participate in their children’s school activities because of their jobs associated with all sorts of waste. I also learned that many people looked down on them or didn’t see their true value, just like I hadn’t.

Recycling small business at work.

When I started, life was in chaos due to the global pandemic in 2020, followed by the coup in 2021. This made my job even harder. Many business owners were reluctant to talk to me. They rejected me sometimes politely, other times confusedly. I noticed that they were scared because no one had ever taken an interest in their work before. Even starting a conversation with them was tough. Encouraging them to join our training programs and other opportunities was even tougher. I admit, I was scared of rejection. Each time I contacted a business, I had to mentally prepare myself.

But over time, I began to understand their perspectives and the nature of their work. Without them, who would take care of the trash? They were recycling our waste! Plastics, paper, cardboard, glass, iron, aluminum, e-waste, etc. They work hard. They work with honesty and perseverance despite numerous challenges like labor shortages, lack of advanced technology, and unstable prices. They care deeply about their employees during the ups and downs of their businesses and are eager to learn and grow. They are remarkable and inspiring.

Meeting with a recycling small business.

After this realization, every survey was a learning experience. I no longer cared about rejections. Each meeting was about building trust and a strong relationship to connect them with the opportunities they deserve.

Indeed, this takes time, patience, and stepping into their shoes.

It takes an empathetic mindset and effective communication.

Above all, it takes recognizing humanity.

Now, after nearly four years with Building Markets, I’ve seen a remarkable transformation in both mindset and business practices among these recycling businesses. I have witnessed how they now feel about their work. They are proud of themselves and their work.  Some say they felt more included and respected in their communities. Some have shared that when asked what they do for a living, they can proudly say they are in the recycling business, contributing to both people and the planet. I’ve seen their smiles and active participation in our training and events. They now understand that they’re not just working for profit, but also making a difference for the environment.

Reflecting on my journey, I also feel a sense of accomplishment. At first, I was just doing my job, but now I encourage these businesses wholeheartedly and have found fulfillment in witnessing their growth and transformation. Importantly, whenever I feel unmotivated and want to give up, I remind myself to stay resilient and keep moving forward no matter what, just like them. Today on World Environment Day, I want to honor the unsung heroes of the circular economy, recycling small businesses, whose participation is so important to achieving global environmental sustainability goals. They’ve taught me more than I ever taught them!

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