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A Toxics-Free Future


Plastic and Gender: Exploring the intersection

The following is from a talk by Johanna Hausmann, a senior policy advisor on chemicals and waste for Women Engage for a Common Future, WECF, a member organisation of IPEN. Johanna has a Masters degree in political science and her focus is on the health impacts from harmful chemicals, especially on pregant women and children and endocrine disrupting chemicals, taking the gender aspect into account. Her goals are better protection from and phasing out of harmful chemicals. She promotes awareness programmes and is engaged in policy processes to achieve a toxic-free future.

My name is Johanna Hausmann, and I am a senior advisor in the field of chemicals and health focusing on women and children and the gender aspect. I work with Women Engage for a Common Future, WECF, an eco-feminist network, and I am based in Munich, Germany.

Currently, a global treaty to stop plastic pollution is being negotiated, guided by the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, and therefore I would like to take the opportunity to share with you some aspects of the intersection between Gender and Plastics. 

Recently, during a Gender and chemicals project[1], WECF conducted an on-site visit to Dandora, Kenya, Africa's largest landfill site. This site contains 15% plastic waste, where you can find the nearby community, especially women and children, scavenging for recyclables. There is a hierarchy at the rubbish dump: the men get the “best goods”, and women and children the less valuable ones.  Wilfried, a 24-year-old female ‘waste picker’ in Dandora, was telling us that she suffers from vein pain and menstrual bleedings lasting longer than two months. The doctors suspect hormonal issues from constant exposure to toxic smoke and pollutants in the waste contaminating the area.

Not only the last, but each phase of the plastic cycle is characterised by different gender-specific experiences and impacts, including health consequences.

99% of plastics originate from fossil fuels. Next to causing significant climate damage, the expansion of fossil fuel industries, often in impoverished areas, harms ecosystems, worsens power differentials, and marginalizes women and groups in vulnerable situations. Women disproportionately face consequences like income loss in agriculture and taking on more care work due to environmental pollution. While men secure new roles in the fossil fuel sector, women have only gained 20% of these jobs.

Women, who make up a significant portion of the global population, often bear the brunt of plastic pollution's harmful effects. Plastic chemicals like Phthalates, PFAS, and Bisphenol A (BPA) have been detected in alarming concentrations in women, including pregnant women. The increases in illnesses such as diabetes, neurological disorders, fertility disorders, premature puberty, asthma, immune disorders, and cancer are linked to these substances.

To understand gender-specific exposure variances, identifying diverse exposure sources is crucial. Biological factors lead to gender-specific differences in plastic pollutant exposure. Women metabolize chemicals differently, their thinner skin allows easier chemical penetration, and fat-soluble toxins can accumulate more due to higher fat tissue content. When women become pregnant there is an increasing risk for current and future generations as studies have revealed contamination of placentas and breast milk with chemicals such as BPA or phthalates. 

In the workplace, women are at increased risk of exposure to harmful plastic chemicals, along with long working hours, poor pay and unknowingly being exposed to high levels of pollution without protective measures. Women are often working in chemical- and plastic-intensive industries such as the textile industry or in waste management (including the informal sector). Female caregivers also handle plastic-based items, facing health hazards. Women, still primarily responsible for household and caregiving tasks, are more exposed to synthetic chemicals in cleaning products. The lack of information on workplace toxins underscores the need for education on health effects.

Also, gender specific use and consumption of plastic products expose women to specific health risks, such as menstrual products containing oil-based plastics and harmful chemicals. Women's higher consumption of cosmetics, influenced by societal beauty norms, underscores the need for complete and clear labelling of ingredients and associated health hazards to enable informed choices and better protection. This is why WECF is working on awareness raising on chemicals in products, e.g. for a toxic and plastic free menstruation and informs consumers, especially women and young parents within our nesting programme on how to avoid plastic in daily life.

The biological, workplace, consumption and social gender differences mentioned above must be considered in data collection, toxicology, risk assessment, protection measures, and policymaking.

Back in Dandora: The final stages of the plastic lifecycle are a global issue closely linked to existing social inequalities. Millions of female waste pickers like Wilfried earn a living in highly toxic environments that contaminate the entire ecosystem and jeopardize their health, yet these jobs are often their sole family income. In our interviews we were told that many waste workers do not live past 30 years old. The increasing number of unskilled women working in the informal sector without any protective measures to support their families' survival is alarming.

The first priority must be to get women out of these workplaces. Equal education is one important step towards achieving this. What we can see: Plastic pollution is not just an environmental crisis; it is also a gender issue that disproportionately affects women and marginalized communities worldwide. 

Addressing the gender dimensions of the plastic crisis requires a multi-faceted approach that integrates environmental, health, and gender considerations. Initiatives promoting safer working conditions for women must be supported.

Women are Agents of Change

In our studies in Kenya and other countries, we have encountered numerous women actively combating the plastic threat, contributing their expertise and courage. They are creating non-toxic natural alternatives for food packaging, empowering women to combat sexual harassment, assisting waste pickers in unionizing, and facilitating access to education. They are promoting the shift to safer and healthier workplaces and require our support. I would like to invite you to watch these examples in our documentary Tackling toxics”.

A Gender-just Plastic Treaty

Global civil society efforts have made progress. However, to effectively address the plastic crisis in all its aspects, political action is needed. A strong Global Treaty to End Plastic pollution could be a milestone. The Treaty must curb plastic production, regulate and prohibit the use of harmful chemicals, and ensure that those responsible for damages caused by profit-oriented corporate policies are held accountable. Gender aspects must play a crucial role in this endeavour. Many policy processes are still disregarding the different impacts and needs of various genders and marginalized groups. Gender considerations are vital, with women's active involvement, gender-specific data, and financial support crucial for a gender-inclusive approach. A Gender Action Plan can underpin these efforts. This is what we stand for in the negotiations of the treaty together with our partners from the Women’s Major Group, IPEN, BFFP, CIEL, and many more. 


Plastic and Gender: Exploring the intersection 

[1] The project “Tackling Toxics” was implemented in coordination with the Basel Rotterdam Stockholm (BRS) secretariat. Scoping studies in Tunesia and Kenya were undertaken together with the Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJAD), Kenya and Association of Environmental Education for Future Generations (AEEFG) in Tunisia.