On Marine Debris as a Form of Gendered Violence

UCLA Center for the Study of Women

by Maya Weeks

In the wake of the election, I have been thinking extensively and without desiring to about the men who wish us dead. I have been thinking about the men who made today’s petroleum industry what it is, and how this industry violates and harms women, and how this violence is disproportionately targeted at femmes of color, especially those who are poor.

Annually, some eight million tons of plastic enter the ocean. In addition to wreaking all the havoc of persistent organic pollutants, plastics transport chemicals toxic to marine and even terrestrial life, such as heavy metals, residue from pesticides, and pharmaceuticals in a a grip of slow violence. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals transported by marine plastics and released when these plastics interact with water and sunlight are dangerous to plankton, krill, fish, sea turtles, and whales, as well as to the humans who eat this seafood.

Plastics are in everyday products, ranging from toothpaste and face washes to the cans and bottles that contain our food and drinks. While these compounds make products pliable, strong, and easy to manufacture and increase the profits of chemical corporations, they also pose undisclosed health hazards to those who encounter them. Circulating in the water cycle, the BPA and DEHP that these products release are endocrine disruptors which inhibit the body’s ability to regulate its hormones. In humans, especially among women, these chemicals are known to cause fetal damage; among sea turtles, BPA can disrupt sexual function and alter behavior. The ecotoxicologist Marte Haave, whom I spoke with at the University of Bergen this summer, contends that plastics should be labeled as persistent organic pollutants because of their devastating effects on the environments they enter—environments that are, in many instances, already jeopardized by climate change, economic instability, and other anthropogenic threats. In California, where I live, retailers now post warning signs regarding BPA to inform people that the chemical is detrimental to the female reproductive system.

Bodies sexed female at birth, who bear the biological as well as social burdens of reproduction, are disproportionately hit by the toxic effects of these chemicals. As Marla Cone points out in Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic, Indigenous women, such as those of the Inupiat in the Arctic, who rely on high-fat diets of seal, whale, and walrus are especially vulnerable, as biophilic endocrine disruptors such as PCBs and PBDEs accumulate in these animals’ bodies. Poor women, often women of color, who have few options but to use inexpensive products wrapped in single use plastics—and if you’ve ever shopped at Trader Joe’s, you know that even their produce comes wrapped in plastics—are particularly vulnerable to these toxins. Because BPA, BPS, and other endocrine disruptors have such severe effects on fetuses, people carrying children—often, but not always, women—are especially vulnerable to the toxins in plastic food packaging.

It goes almost without saying that massive amounts of debris from such products show up in ecosystems in places global capitalism has already treated as sites of extraction—Indonesia, Borneo, and Mexico, to name a few—that neither have the infrastructure to manage it nor are responsible for the production of the products the debris is derived from. For this production, we have again the men who would wish us dead to thank: the ones who run the oil and gas companies, the ones who run the American Petroleum Institute, the ones who sit on the board of the American Chemical Society, the ones who have promoted the culture of disposability that is not-so-slowly killing our species.

As I wrote in “Closed Loop Dead Matter,” women are often made responsible for managing which products are consumed in their households—and for assessing the respective toxicity levels of those products. Yet it is these men—so often rich, so often white, so often cisgender—who flood the market with aggressively advertised toxic products: the same products we have to defend our and each others’ bodies from.

Plastics, their associated endocrine disruptors, and the other chemicals and substances they transport—such as the aforementioned heavy metals—are just one form of violence waged on women and femmes. Part of keeping ourselves and each other alive (especially femmes of color, especially Black and indigenous femmes) is learning how to live with fewer plastics. One hundred years ago, petroleum products were unheard of. Returning to using wood, glass, metals, ceramics, and other organic and reusable materials for the vast majority of our products, from food containers to baby toys, needs to be affordable and commonplace to keep us all alive and cease stuffing the pockets of the petroleum barons—especially since we need our immunity to deal with everything white supremacist, ableist heteropatriarchy is throwing at us.

Maya Weeks is a writer and artist working on interactions between humans and the environment under late capitalism. Focuses include marine ecosystems, climate change, gendered violence, and logistics. Some work has been published in the National Geographic Explorer’s Journal, The New Inquiry, and Guts Canadian Feminist Magazine and performed at Historical Materialism London, Studio One Art Center in Oakland, and on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean. Maya lives in Oakland, California and tweets @looseuterus. Find out more about her work at http://protectingeverybit.tumblr.com/

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.