Plastic Pollution as a Gender Issue: How Women in Vulnerable Communities Are at Risk

Although plastic pollution is a global issue, it’s those in disadvantaged communities who suffer from it the most. This occurs for a few reasons, but some of the main ones are that those in vulnerable communities are often uneducated when it comes to proper waste management; these types of communities are often located near landfills or plastic treatment centers; and plastic waste is often imported from abroad, overwhelming landfills and treatment centers, and causing the plastic to leak into the communities.

But, there is one group within these communities that’s disproportionately affected by plastic waste: women.

It may seem strange that plastic pollution can be a gender issue, but a recent report by the United Nations highlighted that “usage of these [plastic] materials disproportionately impacts women worldwide.” This is due to a number of factors, including the toxins found in certain types of plastic that are linked to numerous health complications.

Here’s how plastic pollution affects women and how you and your company can help combat this exponentially growing issue.

women and plastic

In rural communities across the world, including in southeast Asia, gender roles continue to be more traditional. Women are the housemakers while men go out and earn an income. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these roles, it also means that women are more exposed to plastics surrounding household cleaners and other items. 

Furthermore, cosmetics and female hygiene products often contain large amounts of plastic, further exposing women to harmful chemicals found in certain types of plastic. While many high-income countries have regulations to prevent these types of plastics entering households, middle- and low-income countries don’t have such regulations.

In fact, the United States has banned bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and other infant products. This chemical has been linked to increased rates of infertility and estrogen production. BPA, along with phthalates, are found in multiple plastics and affect pregnant women, fetuses, and newborns the most.  

Women are often exposed to unsafe working conditions due to gender roles

women

In areas where gender roles are still unequal, women are often pushed out of more economically stable and safer jobs, leaving only positions in the informal sector, which has no regulation, job security, or safety measures.

In vulnerable communities, education for boys is often prioritized over girls. This leads to young girls helping their mothers as informal waste pickers or going to work with their families in plastic treatment centers or other such hazardous work. Rather than receiving an education that can keep them out of harmful environments, women see increased exposure to plastic from a young age, and they are more likely to pursue similar work when they grow older. Because of this, women often see exposure to toxic chemicals throughout their lives, augmenting their risk of certain diseases, like breast cancer.

Men often get paid positions in recycling centers and plants where they receive health care, training, and personal protective equipment. Women cannot get these positions because these types of jobs are viewed as dangerous, and therefore unfit for women. This leaves many women to participate in the informal sector as waste pickers. As waste pickers, women rarely receive access to health care, training, or personal protective equipment, creating a much more dangerous environment than their male counterparts experience.

The lead authors of the UN report Marine plastic litter in East Asian Seas: Gender, human rights and economic dimensions, May Thazin Aung and Babette Resurrección, discuss this issue. “A large portion of plastic recycling work is done informally by women waste workers, often working alongside their families and in very unhygienic conditions,” they confirm. “There is a large informal economy of waste pickers in southeast Asia, and governments need to recognize this economy and take action to protect those who work in it.”

The report states that, in Hanoi, the informal waste picker sector is disproportionately women; in 2006, it was found that waste pickers were 94% women. It also stated that waste pickers are among the lowest paid, and they are often exploited for their work. Not only are women pushed out of the more competitively paid positions, but they are exposed to more toxins and have no power to change their working conditions.

The real health risks of exposure to plastic

plastic

Exposure to the toxins in plastic has been linked to a number of serious health conditions. Many of these conditions occur due to long term exposure to plastic, like collecting and sorting plastic in unsafe environments—a task that is disproportionately delegated to women.

The above UN report lists a few potential health issues connected to the handling of plastic waste.

  • Increased rates of breast cancer (as much as 5x more than women who don’t handle plastic waste)
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Increased rates of infertility
  • Increased rates of miscarriages

 

So, not only are women exposed to more plastic chemicals than men, but they also face increased health issues as well.

TONTOTON empowers women to reduce plastic waste in their communities

women in community

TONTOTON’s plastic waste approach is unique as it employs individuals from the communities in which we work in order to remove plastic waste. We use a certified plastic credit system to fund our projects, allowing companies to take responsibility for their plastic waste while providing a much-needed employment opportunity to the men and women in vulnerable communities.

We equally employ men and women as waste collectors so that they can remove plastic waste from their communities and make an income at the same time. We offer competitive wages, access to healthcare, personal protective equipment, and training so that those who work with us can enjoy the safety and secure wages that the (primarily) men who work in the formal sector also enjoy. 

Furthermore, we focus on a previously ignored type of plastic waste—orphan plastic—allowing our waste pickers to clean up plastic waste that, until now, had no monetary value. They get to enjoy a cleaner, safer community while providing for their families. We also offer flexibility; our collection trucks will come to the waste pickers so that they don’t have to carry the collected plastic waste long distances. They can also work when they want, allowing women to continue to manage household duties while offering additional financial support in a safe manner.

While removing plastic waste from the environment is a key goal of TONTOTON’s plastic credit system, we place equal importance on the individuals who live in the communities in which we work, and that includes women. For a socially and environmentally responsible way to take accountability for your plastic waste, TONTOTON offers a balanced solution.