Is the plastic problem exacerbating gender inequality?

The whole life cycle of the material affects women significantly. By Imy Brighty-Potts.

Imy Brighty-Potts
Wednesday 31 May 2023 15:44 BST
Plastic may be a patriarchal problem (Alamy/PA)
Plastic may be a patriarchal problem (Alamy/PA)

Plastic has long been a health concern, and we are all trying to use less of it, but the problems with plastic may disproportionately affect women.

We are creating twice as much plastic waste as 20 years ago, according to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with the majority of it ending up in landfill, incinerated or leaking into the environment.

Only 9% of plastic is successfully recycled, according to their 2022 report. But what does that have to do with gender bias?

“Women are disproportionately affected by plastic toxicity and gender inequality throughout the plastic life cycle, from manufacturing to waste management,” says Renuka Thakore, a lecturer and researcher at the School of Justice at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) with a specialism in sustainability.

Here’s how…

The consumption of plastic

It’s understood that women across the globe generally use more plastic than men.

“Menstruation is a natural process that affects half of the world’s population and women require safe, affordable, and accessible menstrual products to manage their menstrual cycle,” says Thakore.

“On average, women use six to eight sanitary napkins per cycle… Unfortunately, 90% of these products are made of plastic, and each used and disposed of menstrual pad can take 500 to 800 years to decompose.”

But it goes beyond the reproductive cycle.

“Women are major purchasers of single-use plastics for food, personal and household items, and are key decision-makers in these purchases,” she adds.

In some situations around the world, due to “a lack of education, limited availability of facilities, and financial constraints”, women are choosing products that are traditionally and readily available, says Thakore. “This often results in women using plastic-heavy products.”

Our society pushes women to use and purchase far more beauty products that are packaged in plastic. Even women’s clothes are said to typically contain more plastic than men’s.

“Tights and leggings made of synthetic plastic-based material fall in the category of microplastics,” says Thakore.

“Many synthetic and natural microfibres are released from common textile garments during domestic and industrial laundering processes. Therefore, microfibres released from synthetic textiles could be one of the major contributors to microplastic pollution in the environment, especially in urban areas.”

Domestic sewers and wastewater treatment plants are considered one of the pathways of textile microfibre release in the environment, she explains.

“Because the use of synthetic textiles continues to increase and the world production of synthetic fibres has surpassed the demand for natural fibres, the problem of microfibres being released into the environment is worsening.

“This can lead to microfibres entering the food chains through both aquatic and terrestrial organisms, which can have potentially hazardous effects on the environment and people,” she says.

Plastic and women’s health 

Single-use plastics used for food and drink often contain bisphenol A, or BPA, and research by the Manipal School of Life Sciences, India, found BPA has ‘the potential’ to cause metabolic-endocrine disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in premenopausal women.

“Microplastics contain substances called endocrine disruptors,” says Dr Cesar Diaz Garcia, a fertility specialist at London Gynaecology.

“Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine system, mimicking, blocking, or altering the production and function of hormones.”

While Thakore adds: “Women’s bodies tend to store a higher proportion of fat, making them more vulnerable to accumulating and storing lipophilic, or fat-loving, chemicals.

“As a result, women exposed to these compounds often have higher levels of stored toxic chemicals in their bodies than men exposed to similar chemicals.”

A 2022 University of Athens report found high BPA levels could even affect IVF success.

Studies on animals have shown that exposure to microplastics during pregnancy can be associated with decreased foetal weight, and developmental issues in offspring,” says Garcia. “This is mainly due to the effect of microplastics on placental structure and function. The placenta is the natural barrier between the mum and the foetus, controlling what goes in and out.”

The destruction of plastic

Even when we dispose of plastic, it could be the disadvantaged women that it most heavily impacts.

“In developing countries, middle-aged widows or single mothers often resort to picking recyclables as the only means of survival,” said Thakore. “But working on the dumpsite is harsh, hazardous and competitive, especially for women.

“Female waste-pickers cannot pick high quantities compared to men and are often left with low-value recyclables, and lack personal protective equipment and tools, with the majority using their bare hands. Men typically have more access to such equipment, so do not suffer the same daily struggle as the female workers.”

The production of plastic

So we know that women tend to buy and use more plastic, but do they have any power within the industry itself? Perhaps not.

“Despite forming two-thirds of the formal and informal sectors of the plastics value chain, women occupy mainly low or mid-level positions due to factors such as lack of education and caring responsibilities for home and family,” says Thakore.

Furthermore, “Women comprise only 38% of all ocean scientists, with only one-fifth in senior-level positions,” she adds.

That means women aren’t typically in positions to hold any influence over how the plastic industry impacts women – or in enough of these positions in adjacent industries, like scientific research.

Thakore says there’s therefore an “urgent need” to address gender inequality and promote women’s leadership in the plastic industry.

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