The fight against plastic pollution is also a fight for women's rights.
By now, most of us have seen images of sea birds tangled up in soda rings and whales starved from eating plastic bags. We understand from seeing these images that plastic pollution is killing our marine life.
What is hard for us to see is that it is killing us too.
Now that 8 billion tonnes of plastic are circulating on earth, microplastics can be found everywhere. In the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. Humans are now exposed to plastic before birth. At every stage of its lifecycle, plastic poses a risk to human health, causing cancer, heart disease, and an array of health problems. Lifelong exposure, inhalation, and ingestion mean that we are heading toward the same fate as our largest mammals.
While plastic affects us all, female bodies are more at risk.
Women are the least protected members of society, especially in vulnerable communities that suffer the most from plastic pollution.
But women everywhere are experiencing the consequences of plastic on our personal health.
Eight years ago, my doctor told me that I have polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS is the leading cause of infertility in women after aging, affecting up to 26% of women worldwide. It's also closely associated with long-term health issues like diabetes and ovarian cancer.
My diagnosis explained why I had sharp pains and irregular bleeding. But none of my doctors could explain why I had PCOS. And only one had any advice: to have kids and remove my ovaries.
It wasn't the advice I was expecting, so I did my own research instead.
I found study after study that showed that women with PCOS have more bisphenol A, or BPA, in their bodies.
BPA is a chemical used to harden plastics. Scientists the world over have observed this link. In almost every study, reproductive issues and cancers were linked to BPA and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals. According to the Endocrine Society, Danish women under 40 working in the plastics industry sought more fertility assistance than unexposed women of the same age.
Plastic waste is diminishing human life, particularly for women.
To understand why – we need to look at our biology and how we are subjected to gender roles and inequality.
For starters, female bodies are more sensitive to hormonal changes.
Our bodies generally have more fat tissue than male bodies which, is where harmful chemicals from plastic are stored. We also rely on our hormones to regulate our monthly cycles, which can be disrupted by environmental toxins.
Women also tend to have more exposure to plastic and its toxins than men.
Engendered ideas about beauty, wellness, and the role of women in households have led women to use more cosmetic, personal care, and cleaning products. These products and their industries are saturated by plastics and petrochemicals. But often, exposure is not a matter of choice.
Everywhere, gender creates systemic inequalities that make it harder for women to overcome the challenges posed by plastic and its health risks.
In many parts of the world, women have fewer employment opportunities and workplace protections. Those who live in rural communities or belong to the urban poor are seldom protected by policies to ensure their health and safety. Most informal waste pickers are women. As are most salon workers, hairstylists, and manicurists. These work settings expose women to plastic and toxins daily while lacking regulations to support safety measures such as proper ventilation or the use of gloves and masks.
Lastly, less is medically understood about female bodies leaving women without proper preventative care.
Centuries of female bodies being excluded from most of medical history have led to diseases being only half-understood. While the other half remains a mystery. According to Dr. Janine Austin Clayton from the National Institutes of Health, "we literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology."
In the early 20th century, scientists discovered the elaborate network of glands and organs that make up our endocrine systems. They found that it used hormones to control everything from our metabolism to our mood. They also found that it's the only system other than our reproductive system that differentiates male from female bodies. This breakthrough led scientists to understand essential differences between the two and paved the way for more research. But different did not mean equal.
Medical research trials were not required by law to include women until 1993. Even today, research about women's reproductive health receives a fraction of funding compared to men's reproductive health. In fact, there is five times more research into erectile dysfunction, which affects 19% of men, than there is about premenstrual syndrome, which affects 90% of women.
The result is healthcare that sees women’s health through the lens of men’s health, and often, by men.
While researching hysterectomies, I came across this description on a women's health center website led by a male OBGYN:
Curing PCOS with a hysterectomy is like cutting off your feet to keep from getting athlete’s foot. No more feet, no more athlete’s foot. The good news, unlike your feet, your ovaries are something you can live very comfortably without.
The irony is that doctors don't actually recommend amputating your feet to get rid of athlete's foot. They do, however, recommend hysterectomies for treating PCOS. Without more awareness about the gender health gap, doctors resort to what little research is available, leaving women suffering from chronic symptoms with few options. So, what can we do?
We can start by recognizing that gender roles shape our relationship with plastic.
Understanding the unique relationships women and men have with plastic allows us to look at more effective and equitable solutions.
We can look at our individual choices and find ways to reduce our own plastic consumption.
While most people can't live plastic-free, there are reusable alternatives to most single-use plastic items. The goal isn't to remove all plastic from everyday life. But to minimize their convenience and stop supporting the handful of producers that continue to profit from the world's plastic crisis.
Most importantly, we must go beyond individual choices and address the systemic inequalities underpinning our plastic pandemic.
By supporting women’s rights, environmental justice, and narrowing the gender health gap, we can protect and empower healthier societies. We can inspire a new generation of advocacy and activism. Save countless sea birds and whales. And heal our humanity too.
My deepest thanks to the women who contributed to this article.
Kim, Blue Brew Tea
Celine, Conspiracy Chocolate
Krystal, 852 Prints
Aanchal, Matryoshka Studio
Sophie, Róu So