Through direct interaction with girls and young women, we can have the greatest influence on changing the perception of working in the solid waste industry.
By Jenny Johnson

It is no secret or surprise that the Waste and Recycling (W&R) industry is male dominated. The many benefits of working in W&R continue to be overshadowed by the notion that the industry is “dirty” when in fact, W&R should be known as industry that is leading in innovation by creating value from waste for the good of the environment.

Fortunately, more and more companies are taking steps to diversify their organizations and leaders. It is particularly important to me—as one of the few female W&R leaders—that we accelerate this progress further, and the keys to unlocking success lie in recruitment and technology.

Networking and Leadership Training
In order to recruit young women into the waste industry, first and foremost, we must encourage and prepare the women already working in this field to advance into leadership roles. We need to model success because if young women do not see female leaders, it is more difficult for them to aspire to become one. Giving women in the waste industry more support through networking and leadership training that will propel them into key leadership roles, will have a trickle-down effect.

The National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) has begun to pave the way with its Women’s Council, which it established in 2003. The Women’s Council fosters the professional development of women in the waste industry, while striving to increase their business, financial and leadership skills through education, workshops, mentoring and networking. What’s more, in 2017, Women in Solid Waste & Recycling (WISR) was created with a similar mission: “to diversify the decision makers in the waste and recycling industry by empowering women to take on leadership roles through networking, professional development and training.”

These associations certainly signal an improvement in creating opportunities for women, but more needs to be done, especially for women in more rural parts of the country who do not have physical access to these national groups. Increased accessibility to women’s chapters of national solid waste associations on a local level would foster women participation in networking and leadership training.

Unfortunately, establishing women’s chapters of waste organizations at the local level is often difficult, because the number of women working in the waste industry in a particular region may not currently be sufficient enough to warrant the creation of a local women’s chapter. Developing women’s groups in the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) state chapters would logically have the greatest chance for success, given the fact that the number of women in the waste industry is growing faster in the public sector than in the private sector.

Active Participation
Speaking of the public and private sectors, local government departments (public) and waste industry companies (private) can support both the professional development and recruitment of women by encouraging their female employees to not only become members of women waste association groups like the Women’s Council or WISR, but to take it one step further and become highly involved in those memberships. Successful active participation requires employer support because attending meetings or annual networking events requires time and resources. The creation of women-focused groups at the local level could become a widespread reality if the public and private sectors invest in women.

Recruiting girls and young women into the waste industry can also begin much earlier than what has typically been “the norm.” The more we encourage girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and science (STEM), the more we can develop the skills needed to be successful in the W&R industry. Thankfully, the NWRA Women’s Council recognizes this need and offers scholarships to students in pursuit of a career in the environmental industry.

Changing the Perception
We can take this one step further by working harder to demonstrate to change the perception of solid waste work being dirty, stale and not interesting. As those of us in the industry know, solid waste management encompasses more than collecting and disposing of waste in a landfill. We need to more effectively illustrate that solid waste management combines innovative thinking and the development of new technologies to create real change with lasting and compelling impact.
We also need to relay to our young audiences how exciting it is to be a part of such change. For instance, some of the innovations that I have seen during the past 10 years include:
• Converting methane to electricity and renewable natural gas
• The use of GPS in grading equipment
• Designing, manufacturing, and installing artificial
closure turf
• Drone surveying
• Understanding and mitigating elevated temperature landfills
• Treating leachate onsite via wetlands, reverse osmosis and biological means

There are more challenges we continue to face that will require outside of the box thinking to overcome, such as:
• Addressing emerging contaminants, such as PFAS
• Developing economical alternatives for waste management other than landfills
• Creating new markets for recyclables
• Solving the plastics problem

I have resolved to become involved in local STEM educational programs so that I can further witness and impact change in our industry. Through direct interaction with girls and young women, we can have the greatest influence on changing the perception of working in the solid waste industry. | WA

Jenny Johnson is Director of Waste & Recycling for LaBella Associates (Rochester, NY), where she leads civil and environmental engineers, geologists and environmental scientists focused on providing solutions for their waste industry clients. The Waste and Recycling Division was formerly Joyce Engineering, Inc., which LaBella acquired in 2017. Jenny can be reached at (804) 355-4520 1604 or via e-mail at