Plastic pollution is a global problem. Every minute, a volume equivalent to a lorry load is dumped into the sea. Around 7 billion of the more than 10 billion tonnes of plastic produced between 1950 and 2020 have gone into landfills and the environment at large.1 Given this magnitude, negotiations were launched in November 2022 on a binding global agreement to stem the enormous tide of plastic waste.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warns that the environmental, social, economic and health risks of plastics are now as extensive and severe as those of climate change, the loss of ecosystems and the exploitation of natural resources.
Many people, including policy makers, are becoming increasingly aware of the destructive consequences of plastic waste. But what does this have to do with gender inequality?
To what extent do plastic hazards affect the sexes and genders differently? And why can the plastic problem worsen existing disadvantages and discrimination?
Plastic pollution changes our living spaces and reduces the ability of ecosystems to adapt to climate change. But not only that – it also directly affects the ability of millions of people to secure their livelihoods. That means we have to look at the division of labour, in particular between women and men. Around the world, women are responsible to a far higher degree than men for ensuring the survival of their households. At the same time, their access to resources like land, water and loans has been greatly reduced. That impacts their work not only in farming and fishing but also in industry, retail and the informal sector. Women are affected directly and existentially by the loss of arable land and the contamination of water and coastal areas.
Numbers alone, however, do not convey the extent of the plastic crisis and the magnitude of global destruction creeping up on us. We are seeing only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of rubbish. Plastics cause problems throughout their entire “lifecycle”. Environmental organisations and the global movement Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) have long been urging us to name and ban the dangers plastics pose to people and the environment in every stage of their cycle, including fossil fuel-based resource extraction, production, use, consumption and disposal. Taking a critical look at the stages raw materials go through to become plastics, and at the growing production of plastics as such, activists from civil society have succeeded in revealing the responsibilities of the plastics industry. For its part, however, the industry seeks to divert attention to what are often small-scale and secondary waste management and recycling efforts.
A critical look at the entire plastics cycle is also of crucial importance from a feminist perspective, because the plastic problem cannot simply be reduced to consumer use patterns or to harmful microplastics in cosmetic products. On the contrary, every stage of the plastics cycle reflects different gender-specific experiences and exposures.
From petrochemicals and microplastics to waste export and management, the plastics lifecycle has different and gender-specific consequences. The only way to develop just and sustainable solutions to the destruction of the environment is to start by recognising the extent to which
discriminatory structures and gender inequality contribute to the plastic problem, and conversely, the degree to which the plastic crisis exacerbates gender power discrepancies.
Table of contents
FOCUS - The global plastic crisis especially affects women and disadvantaged groups
- Resource extraction: At the expense of local communities and woman
- Production: non-stop exposure to toxins
- Use and consumption: health risks of hygiene and beauty standards
- Waste management and recycling: cleaning up at the end of the plastic value chain
- Final disposal: Waste exports are not gender neutral
INSIGHT - From recycling to rights: How activists around the globe are combining environmental justice, anti-discrimination and the fight against plastic
OUTLOOK - Combatting plastic pollution requires gender-responsive action
- Policy Demands of Feminist Environmentalists