Women of Waste! Women’s evolving role in the waste and resource management sector

Gabriela Garcés-Sánchez, bioConsult svi, Germany 

Maria Tsakona, Qgreen/Agricultural University of Athens, Greece

Georgina M Nitzsche, ISWA International Solid Waste Association, Austria

Women of Waste (WOW) is an informal group advocating for the role of women in waste management and promotes spaces of dialogue, communication and encourages participation. WOW! spotlights women’s work and achievements in the sector, and along with SAGE are supporting the work of the Women in Engineering Society.

Anyone aware of the marine litter crisis or following the Zero Waste movement knows that waste management is an important utility service in any society and is still a challenge for local authorities in many parts of the world. Insufficient and inefficient management of waste streams have a direct impact to the environment, human health and livelihoods and affects social and economic development. Last estimates by the World Bank, in What a Waste 2.0, reported 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste, or rubbish as it is more commonly known, and this is expected to increase as countries around the world continue to develop economically  (waste generation has a positive correlation to economic development). It is a grim outlook, but female engineers are a growing part of the solution.

In light of growing urbanization, current efforts are focusing on how to communicate and promote sustainable waste management options and resource-efficient policies, and all this within the context of a circular economy transition where waste becomes another resource in a never-ending loop of use and renewal.

Historically, the solid waste sector has provided limited interest and opportunity for women. However, with this growing global paradigm shift around “waste as a resource”, the move away from landfilling towards waste prevention, reuse, recycling and recovery, and the fervour around circular economy opportunities, more women are finding the sector an attractive one to develop their careers in.

A recent 2018 global online survey: Mapping the status of women in the global waste management sector. conducted by Women of Waste (WOW!), an initiative lead by women in the waste sector and supported by the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), revealed that women do contribute significantly to the global waste industry, in a variety of roles across the waste management hierarchy, and through a diversity of organisations even though they are not very “visible” in society.

For example, the survey found that the majority of respondents currently work in local government (30.2%), followed by private waste management companies (14.4%) and consulting/engineering companies (13.3%). Moreover, women have been increasingly active in promoting waste prevention, in reuse, recycling and recovery of materials: in other words, proactive jobs and activities to help break the waste crisis.

As we contemplate the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society’s  (WES) this silent evolution of women’s roles in the formalised waste sector represents quite a positive change as now women are bringing their capacities and innate abilities of promoting collaborative and intersectoral work to the field. From managing landfill sites in South America, research and advanced waste treatment processes in Europe, to developing communication, digital tools and robotic applications for waste management, women are bringing ingenious ideas to projects, in management/decision making roles and in entrepreneurial activities around the world, all of which is having a positive impact in society!

High profile success stories of female activists and role models in the media, such as Dr María Mendiluce, Managing Director at World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) or Bea Johnson, a Zero Waste Lifestyle leader, are raising awareness of the professional and business opportunities of a rewarding and meaningful career for women in waste and resource management.

However, socio-cultural barriers still exist and women are affected differently by waste management in different cultures. So, there is still work to do to support women to reach their full potential.

Further promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in schools and enhancing women’s education is going to facilitate the development of abilities to enter higher education and careers in waste engineering and management. With waste management being high on the public agenda it needs to attract a wider group of people to tackle the issues in the industry. It is vital that gender equality policies and changing stereotypes on gender roles are also encouraging and opening opportunities for women to take more active roles in the waste management sector.

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