Sunday 8th March marks International Women’s Day, an event that has occurred annually since 1911. It’s a time for ‘celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity’.
So, we’re pausing for a moment in our fight to reduce plastic waste to hail the work of some amazing women, who are leading global initiatives to rid the world of this toxic substance. So, fill an rCUP (the world’s first reusable cup made from used cups) with your hot drink of choice, get comfy and read about some of Earth’s excellent eco-heroes!
Rendy Solomon is an Environmental Health Officer for the Ministry of Health in Gizo, on the Solomon Islands. In 2014 she spent three months in Japan studying environmental education, which planted the seed of an idea in her mind about improving waste management in her country. Unfortunately, the Ministry’s budgets wouldn’t sustain any large projects but Rendy didn’t stop looking for ways she could help.
In 2017, a chance meeting with a woman keen to start cleaning local beaches inspired Rendy. She began by organising a group which cleared plastic, mosquito nets and other waste that had washed up on the shoreline. The group, named Plastic Wise Gizo, then expanded to further activities which promoted the goal of cleaning up their part of the country, as well as collaborating with others on school projects, radio programs, competitions and fundraising to help raise awareness. They also took part in World Oceans Day.
The group initially encountered the problem of what to do with all the plastic they had gathered. Thanks to the creativity of some of their members, they were able to turn it into something positive. By making it into handicrafts and selling their designs to visiting tourists, the women receive an income, as well as ensuring their cause is acknowledged.
The group is now proactively lobbying their government to take action on responsible waste management, as well as continuing to educate local residents on what happens when plastics clutter up the ocean.
UK-born Emily Penn founded not-for-profit organisation eXXpedition in 2014. The company runs all-female, multi-disciplinary sailing research trips to seek out, and find ways to lessen, the plastic pollution found in the world’s oceans.
It was when Emily, a former architect, travelled to Shanghai in 2007 for her dissertation research that she discovered a love of slow travel (she used trains, horses and camels to get to her destination). A year later, she hitched a ride on a boat to visit Australia, and it was during the journey that she witnessed the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.
It was this that spurred her on to begin researching the effects of plastic at sea, including how it breaks down into microplastics and then enters the food chain. She set up eXXpedition in 2014 and the first voyage took place the same year, with the aim being to explore how much plastic was in our oceans, and where it was gathering. The success of this mission led to Emily’s group carrying out further journeys, including looking at the impact of plastic on both marine life and humans; the types of plastic in the oceans and possible ways to stop it reaching the water in the first place.
Each crew is made up of 10 diverse women, selected both for their individual skills and for the impact they can make when they return to their communities with their new-found knowledge.
In 1997, Isatou Ceesay, along with four other women, started up the Recycling Centre of N’Jau in The Gambia. Isatou first became interested in a proactive environmental role after watching women in her village use plastic waste to light their stoves: she knew how poisonous the fumes were to those that breathed them in.
After meeting a USA Peace Corps Volunteer who taught her how to reclaim plastic waste, Isatou and her four friends began visiting local markets every Sunday, to teach the village residents how to effectively deal with the plastic in their community. They also empowered the local women to change their role in society by helping them achieve financial independence through reclaiming and recycling plastic waste. Through this, Women Initiative - The Gambia (WIG) was born.
It’s now recognised as an official community-based organisation: there are over 2,000 members across 40 communities in the country (mostly women but it does include men) and it receives support from the Brikama Area Council, plus NGOS such as WasteAid UK and Concern International. Isatou says that a particular highlight for the group was when the Gambian government consulted them regarding the use of plastic bags, before then voting on a complete ban on their importation.
WIG members are shown how to make bags, wallets and children’s balls from the plastic waste they collect, and then sell them for profit. They receive 18-36 months of training in plastic recycling and waste management and are also taught how to budget, save, and plan for personal development projects.
Last year Dianna Cohen received the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association’s Waterman’s Environmentalist of the Year Award for her work with Plastic Pollution Coalition (PPC), the group she co-founded and is the CEO of.
A visual artist of many years standing, Dianna works with plastic – mostly bags - to ‘make a visual and social impact’ with her artwork. In 2007 she became aware of the Great Pacific Plastic Patch and began learning more about how plastic is polluting the Earth. Rather than looking how to clean up that which was already there, she began to consider how she could prevent more being added to it.
With her sister, Julia, Dianna created PPC, a global alliance of over 1,000 businesses, organisations and individuals collaborating to rid the world of plastic pollution. Their vision includes the adoption of zero-waste values and the reduction of single-use plastic; for non-governmental organisations to work together to drive demand for systemic solutions, and for governments and businesses to enforce the practices of a circular economy.
There are members from 60 different countries (including Let’s Go Plastic Free’s sustainable bamboo product suppliers, Bambaw!) and many prominent names are involved: Jean-Michel and Fabien Cousteau (son and grandson of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau), and actors Chevy Chase, Rosanna Arquette, Bette Midler and Jane Fonda have all signed up, amongst many others.
Current projects the PPC are involved in are The Last Plastic Straw (exactly as it sounds: a drive to rid the world of single-use plastic straws) and an alliance with Hannah4Change, an environmentalist and animal rights activist who is concerned with climate change, animal rights, plastic pollution and ocean health.
How inspiring are these brilliant women? Caring for our planet doesn’t always have to involve something that huge, however. You can help reduce plastic waste by making a few simple swaps in your everyday life: ditch supermarket rubbish sacks and stock up on compostable ones, take Clingfilm off your shopping list and replace it with beeswax food wraps, and stop buying your coffee in a disposable cup and ask the barista to fill up your rCUP instead!