People, Planet

Why gender matters in tackling marine plastic litter

Stockholm Environment Institute | Nov 12, 2019


This article was reposted from here, with permission from the Stockholm Environment Institute.

A Q&A with May Thazin Aung and Babette Resurrección:

In Asia, increases in marine plastic pollution have far-reaching impacts on different groups, including women, children, informal waste pickers and coastal communities. Issues around plastic products and pollution affect members of these groups in unique ways based on biology, culture, income, gender, consumption patterns and social norms. SEI’s May Thazin Aung and Babette Resurrección are lead authors of the UN Environment report, Marine Plastic Litter in East Asian Seas: Gender, Human Rights and Economic Dimensions.


Q: What is the impact of increased plastic pollution on women, children, informal waste pickers and coastal communities?


May: We see the impacts on plastics at every stage – from production through to leakage out to sea. In production, for example, additives in plastics have health effects on workers. In consumption, plastics appear everywhere in everyday household items, such as cosmetics and cleaning agents, exposing more people to negative health effects.

At the disposal stage in Southeast Asia a large portion of plastic recycling work is done informally by women waste workers, often working alongside their families and in very unhygienic conditions. Some of the waste workers even live in or next to trash dumps. Finally, when plastic arrives in the ocean, it affects the health of ecosystems – plastic destroys habitats and harms species, which has an impact on coastal communities as they often depend on marine resources for their livelihoods, such as fishing and tourism.


Q: What are the effects of plastic production on the health and well-being of women?

Babette: There is a prevalence of women working in plastics and plastics-related industries, such as the automotive industry. Many of the plastics produced and used have additives that negatively affect their health. Hazardous materials, including endocrine disruptors such as BPA, vinyl chloride, styrene, acrylonitrile and phthalates, are present in the production stage, and research has shown the health impacts experienced by the workers that handle these materials – in particular infertility, spontaneous abortions, adverse birth outcomes and increased risk of breast cancer.

Q: How is waste management tied to gender and other disadvantaged groups, and what are some of the negative effects of this type of work?

May: Marine plastic pollution is directly connected to how waste is managed on land. Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from pollution and should play a central role in waste management.

Babette: 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 most impoverished workers are usually the ones that are not absorbed into formal systems of employment. Governments have two main options: to provide better support for informal waste management or to formalize the work that these communities perform.


Q: Why is it important to analyze gender for the entire plastics value chain, and how are women integral to this?

Babette: Each stage of the value chain has gender implications. Gender crosscuts the value chain. In waste management, there are growing examples of women’s leadership and involvement in recycling. Some women have organized into recycling groups or cooperatives. While we celebrate this, we also must look at whether they are able to exercise their rights for fair economic benefits and for protection from unsafe conditions while handling plastic waste and risks associated with gender-based violence. If women take up this issue, we need to respect these rights while initiating action in areas such as recycling and waste management.

Q: What current initiatives are there that tackle the issue of gender and plastics, and how can we move forward on this issue? 


Babette: There is currently very little research on marine plastics and gender, and this needs to be further explored – this UN Environment report can provide a platform for this. We need more projects that take a deep dive into the issue, and should look further at some efforts that are underway to organize women for recycling.

May: This is a very interdisciplinary field. Many disciplines, from human rights to biodiversity conservation, can look at the issue of marine plastic pollution. The four-year Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) funded initiative on tackling marine plastic pollution in the East Asia Seas region is a start, but this issue will clearly continue to grow and we need both more research and action to improve plastics management and support healthier livelihoods.


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