Three experts on why eradicating plastic pollution will help achieve gender equality

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kristin Hughes, Director, Global Plastic Action Partnership, Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum Geneva

  • Women fight on the frontlines against plastic pollution.
  • The transition to a circular economy for plastics – and the shift to a green and sustainable world – must go hand-in-hand with building a plastics value chain that is inclusive and gender-equal.
  • Women’s inclusion in the waste sector needs to go all the way up to policy level to enable a plastic waste management sector that reflects gender parity.

For decades, the forces that drive our global dependence on single-use plastics and our inability to keep plastic waste out of the environment have hit women and marginalized communities the hardest.

At the same time, women have also fought on the front lines against plastic pollution. They make sustainable consumption and disposal decisions for their families and communities. They keep cities and towns clean by collecting and selling plastic waste to recyclers. And they make important policy and business decisions to protect the environment and defend the most vulnerable in spite of the systemic obstacles that persist to this day.

There is broad consensus that the transition to a circular economy for plastics – and the shift to a green and sustainable world – must go hand-in-hand with building a plastics value chain that is inclusive and gender-equal. One that uplifts the insights and challenges of women and makes sure they are seated at the decision-making table. But what might that look like in practice?

Here, three women leaders from the Global Plastic Action Partnership community, representing diverse perspectives from the United States, Ghana and Viet Nam, weigh in on what it will take to eradicate plastic pollution – and why women’s leadership and gender equality are absolutely vital to this effort.

What it will take to eradicate plastic pollution? Image: Our World in Data

1. Dune Ives

Executive Director, Lonely Whale
Civil society, United States

Your organization employs creative campaigns to get consumers and businesses to stop relying on single-use plastics. Is gender a consideration when you develop these campaigns?

We always start with research. In the case of our “Question How You Hydrate” campaign, which focused on eliminating single-use plastic water bottles—500 billion of which are used globally each year—our market research showed our messaging would most likely resonate with U.S. millennial moms of white and Hispanic descent.

Since launch, we have seen an increase in awareness and behaviour change, and we continue to explore creative partnerships with strong female voices. One of the notable involvements in our recent work was the poem “Ode to our Ocean,” written and read by Amanda Gorman and distributed in partnership with Lonely Whale, Atmos and Future Earth on World Oceans Day 2020.

Women are always part of our campaigns, but our experience has demonstrated that men and those who identify as male also care deeply about the environment. Oftentimes, these men are fathers and husbands like Jason Momoa, Russell Wilson, Van Jones and Diplo. Others have a deep and first hand understanding of how the injustices happening to marginalized communities and the Earth are interconnected such as Wyn Wiley/Pattie Gonia, Danny Franzese, Kendrick Sampson, and Xuihtezcatl Martinez.

2. LE Thi Thu Thuy

Chairwoman, VinFast; Vice Chairwoman, Vingroup
Private sector, Viet Nam

What role have women in Viet Nam played in managing plastic waste and promoting the circular economy? What role is your company playing?

Segregation at the source is the key in solid waste management. In Viet Nam, women are often exposed to waste as they are expected to perform the bulk of domestic work. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, 90% of waste segregation at source in Vietnamese households is done by women. Therefore, women play a critical role in managing plastic waste and thereby promoting the circular economy. At Vingroup, many successful waste reduction campaigns have been launched by female leaders to actively raise customer and community awareness in building and preserving a healthy environment.

As a founding member of the Viet Nam National Plastic Action Partnership, we are at our core a sustainable business. We recently launched the VinFuture Prize to promote breakthroughs in scientific research and technological innovations for humanity, including solving environmental problems and creating a more equitable and sustainable world for future generations.

Our subsidiary VinSmart has launched a “Say No to Plastic” campaign to minimize the use of plastics in business practices by using recyclable or environmentally friendly packaging, such as recycled paper, cardboard, ESD plastic trays, and pallets. Vinpearl, a hospitality industry leader in Viet Nam, has also implemented the project “Go Green” to reduce nearly 1.4 tons of plastic waste across its network in one month.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

3. Adwoa Coleman

Africa Sustainability and Advocacy Manager, Dow
Private sector, Ghana

The Government of Ghana and the World Economic Forum have launched a national platform in Ghana for addressing plastic pollution, of which Dow is an active supporter and champion. What is your vision for how this platform can support women’s leadership and entrepreneurship in Ghana?

My vision for the national platform is to exceed the quotas for female inclusion in all our pillars, to institute female inclusion in the sector all the way up to policy level and to enable a plastic waste management sector in Ghana that reflects gender parity at all stages.

The role of women in Ghana in plastic waste management cannot be understated. Women can be found at all levels of the plastic waste value chain: from waste reclaiming to aggregation to recycling. However, there is a notable reduction in participation of women as you move further up the value chain, which also unfortunately correlates with the roles where the earning potential is more.

There are several ways in which stakeholders can support the leadership of women in this area. For instance, we need to ensure an adequate representation of women as a criterion for public-private partnerships in waste management. Private sector actors who rely on women in the waste reclaiming sector should also ensure equal pay for their male and female suppliers and place emphasis on training and upskilling for the women.

For citizens, sensitization around the role women play in this sector is key. There is a general misconception that women in this sector are playing a biological role, which is not the case. Women in waste have a right to the same level or respect and visibility as any other form of employment.

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