Plastic pollution is a global menace.
Many of the world's seas and oceans may end up carrying more plastic than fish (by weight) by 2050 if the world doesn’t step up its fight against plastic waste. Microplastics are so pervasive now that people are pooping plastic, and scientists have even found microplastics deep within the Artic ice.
Luckily, there are some incredible women are at the forefront of the fight against plastic pollution.
It was three ordinary women that started the No Straws Attached social media campaign that spread around the world and created change in over 20 countries.
It was 300 women that sailed the seas on a two-year scientific research mission to discover the real effects of plastic pollution and pinpoint solutions.
Again, it was a woman that started Wecyclers, the innovative recycling service using a fleet of low-cost cargo bikes in Nigeria.
Aside from kickstarting plastic-free campaigns and leading plastic solution movements, women play a key role the actual cycle of plastic use and recycling. They make purchasing decisions for their households and they hold significant roles within the recycling sector itself.
However, women are also at greater risk of experiencing the impacts of plastic pollution and climate change.
Marine plastic pollution, for example, poses an enormous threat to women working near shores that are tasked with handling the filtering of plastic litters. Most of this waste contains additives that can cause infertility, premature loss of pregnancy, adverse birth outcomes, and even an increased risk of breast cancer, according to the Stockholm Environment Institute.
But as Mayesha Alam, an expert on climate, women’s rights, and conflict at Yale University, told Global Citizen in 2020, women are not “helpless victims” when dealing with climate change.
“Their participation and leadership can have transformative effects in their countries and communities,” she said.
One of the climate problems women have set their sights on solving is plastic waste. Here are 10 incredible women at the forefront of the movement to end plastic pollution.
1. Brianne West Created the World's First Zero-Waste Beauty Brand
Ethique (the French word for ethical) is the world’s first zero-waste beauty brand. It all started back in 2012 when West started making products in her kitchen. The company has since attracted a star-studded clientele, including Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher, and was named New Zealand's most sustainable business after winning the "Best in B" award in 2015.
Their most famous product is an eco-friendly solid shampoo bar — made with all natural ingredients such as coconut oil, cocoa butter, and kiwifruit seed oil — which is entirely waste-free and lasts two to five times longer than its liquid counterparts.
They’ve taken huge strides for the environment, preventing the creation of more than 6 million plastic bottles that could otherwise have ended up in landfills.
2. Nzambi Matee Is Transforming Plastic Waste Into Building Materials
Nairobi generates an estimated 480 tons of plastic waste every day. One young Kenyan woman, Nzambi Matee, has made it her mission to help tackle this problem, by transforming plastic waste into affordable building materials for pavers and exterior flooring.
Her initiative, the Gjenge Makers, is aiming to drive forward Nairobi’s waste recovery target of 80%.
3. Deepanjali Kanoria Came Up With a Biodegradable Sanitary Napkin
After finding out that 432 million sanitary pads were being dumped in landfills in India each year, Deepanjali Kanoria quit her job as a financial consultant in New York and returned home to India to her new calling: creating biodegradable feminine hygiene products.
While one pad can take between 500 and 800 years to decompose, Kanoria’s invention (made from corn and bamboo fiber) starts to break down after just six months.
4. Rupjyoti Saikia Gogoi Turns Trash Into Treasure
Rupjyoti Saikia Gogoi’s Village Weaves innovative initiative is based in Assam, India, and works in three ways: it tackles plastic waste, recycles it in an eco-friendly manner, and empowers local women.
Gogoi’s "trash into treasure" project involves collecting waste that is discarded by the millions of tourists that visit the Kaziranga National Park each year. This trash is then washed, dried, and turned into products such as handbags, table mats, and doormats.
The self-taught artisan started sharing her knowledge with other women in the area. Within a year, hundreds of women joined her network. Once these women gain mastery, they become independent. The women can make about $150-$200 a month from sales when tourism is at its peak.
Since the birth of the idea in 2004, the enterprise has worked with more than 2,300 women across 35 villages in Assam.
5. Caron Proschan Invented a Biodegradable Alternative to Chewing Gum
Most chewing gum contains non-digestible plastic and other materials, such as rubbers and waxes. This doesn’t just mean your body can’t ingest it if you accidentally swallow it, it also means it doesn’t decompose easily — which is bad news for the planet.
Here, Caron Proschan saw an opportunity and Simply Gum was born: a natural confectionery company that’s disrupting the snacking industry.
The chewing gum base is made of harvested chicle (tree sap) instead of plastic and contains no artificial ingredients.
6. Vili Petrova Started a Menstrual Cup Movement
While Deepanjali Kanoria (woman number three on our list) came up with a solution for biodegradable sanitary pads, this female inventor decided to do away with the need for them entirely thanks to menstrual cups.
Vili Petrova created the Lena Cup — a menstrual cup that collects blood, can be emptied out, and reused for years.
People who menstruate have to change pads or tampons many times a day while on their period, which usually lasts from four days to about a week. This means that people are using a huge number of pads and tampons, which can contain up to 90% plastic and end up in landfills every year.
7, 8, and 9. Quinette Goosen, Glinise Howard, and Olive Grimsel Set Up a Plastic Exchange Shop
Three women – Quinette Goosen, Glinise Howard and Olive Grimsel – set up the Uitenhage Recycling Mula Swop Shop, a shop based in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa in which children, especially from low-income families, earn points by collecting recyclables, which they can then redeem for things like toiletries, stationary, and toys.
The Mula Swop Shop helps up to 300 households a week, which has also meant removing nearly 74,000 kilograms of plastic from the community.
10. Sarah Kaeck Created Beeswax Wraps to Replace Plastic Wrap
Cling film and plastic wrap contribute to the truckload of plastic dumped into our oceans every minute.
Wanting an alternative, Vermonter Sarah Kaeck created the Bee's Wrap — an organic, washable, sustainable, and reusable kitchen wrap that can store everything from fruit and vegetables to baked goods and leftovers.