Women and Girls STEMming the Tide of Waste

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Contributed by Jennifer Breslin

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focus on actions to be taken by the global community for people, planet and prosperity. Of the 17, there are a number that relate to a growing problem for achieving this vision, an ever increase in waste. In particular SDG 12 focuses on Production and Consumption and SDG 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities.

Women and waste may not immediately come to mind as a critical STEM issue but even a quick consideration reveals the multitude of ways that science, technology and innovation are linked to production and consumption, the waste this generates, and the implications of this waste for climate change, ecosystems, and human health. Women are on the frontlines of the challenge of waste due to their oversized roles and responsibilities within households, as small-scale agricultural producers, as business owners, as actors in the informal and formal waste sectors, and as a group disproportionally impacted by the impacts of climate and ecological crisis. Young women are also the leaders of the youth movement globally, calling attention to these issues and advancing campaigns and meaningful action.

Women also have a critical role to play in using STEM to address waste issues and to create more sustainable and healthy societies.

Let’s look at the magnitude of the challenge:

  • The world’s cities produce every year 7 – 10 billion tons of solid, liquid, domestic, industrial and commercial waste. Managing waste properly is essential for building sustainable and livable cities, but it remains a challenge for many developing countries and cities. (UN Habitat)
  • Waste is growing faster than any other source of environmental pollution, especially in developing regions, affecting greatly the health of the population. (United Cities and Local Government)
  • Fast Fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil. There are 11.1 M tons of textiles in U.S. landfills alone. (World Economic Forum)
  • Every year around the globe 1.3 billion tons of food is lost or wasted, that is a 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption. Food losses represent a waste of resources used in production such as land, water, energy and inputs, increasing the green gas emissions in vain. FAO The food we waste is responsible for roughly 8 percent of global emissions. (Drawdown)
  • Current estimates indicate that approximately 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land area is occupied to produce food that is never consumed by humans. In addition, each year, approximately 35 percent of global fish and seafood products are either lost or wasted, with a considerable proportion due to discard at catch level. (FAO) These have major impacts on the ability to maintain healthy ecosystems, ecosystem services and climate mitigation.

There are many dimensions to the waste challenge and points of intervention including reducing waste, creating less harmful waste, capturing and storing waste more effectively, and recycling materials.

We can see opportunities in developing regenerative agricultural practices, minimizing post-harvest food loss, and reducing food waste in consumption (e.g. composting). The production of goods and products in our global “disposable economy” calls for greater attention to creating circular models that emphasize reuse/repurposing/recycling. Developing less resource intensive practices, substitutes for harmful and hazardous inputs and waste, and clean energy sources are also key. The plastic pollution crisis is also receiving increased – and warranted - attention.

In addition to tackling imperatives around policy and regulation, economic models, societal values, and behavior change, there are many facets of STEM and innovation that are part of the solution to our global waste challenge. Disciplines that are core to this work include a wide range of ‘green technologies’, materials science, chemistry, biology, environmental science, engineering, genetic engineering, nano-technology, computer science, and many more. Not all solutions are high tech. We must also embrace Nature-Based Solutions – protecting and managing nature more effectively – and different ways of knowing, specifically traditional practices of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Girls and women around the world are already making change happen through STEM. There are thousands of stories across sectors, stakeholders and at the formal and informal level. Here are just a few in the area of solid waste.

A 2018 survey of the ISWA Women of Waste community showed that  “51.6% of respondents are working in waste prevention, reuse/repair/refurbishment and recycling and the majority of younger women starting their careers here as well”. This community supports women and their work in the formal waste sector.

The “Fighting Women of Africa” in the Ivory Coast are collecting plastic waste and converting it into building materials, including to build new schools.

Ellen MacArthur, who solo sailed around the world, started the prominent MacArthur Foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a Circular Economy. Biomimicry – the study of nature for inspiration for sustainable human design – also follows circularity principles where waste is an input to something else. It also employs biology, environmental sciences, and engineering as core to its work. Biomimicry was founded by Janine Banyus and the Biomimicry Institute (education and incubation) and Biomimicry 3.8 (consulting) are both led by women. The now global Repair Café model, where people bring their broken items from home to get fixed by specialists, was founded by a woman, Martine Postma.

The global Technovation Challenge in the years 2015 and 2018 saw teams of girls from India and Nigeria in the finals based on their development of apps that responded to waste challenges. These included the app EDDO which helps dispose of e-waste, Disposius  (which won the competition for 2015) which aims to tackle the health issues many Nigerians face as a result of improper waste disposal, and an app that creates a mobile marketplace for waste.

The informal sector – like waste pickers who collect, sort, recycle and sell materials – also play a central role in waste management in the Global South and often these are women. Access to technology to improve their work and protect their safety – as well as other inputs and policies  important for this group as well – are being supported by organizations like the Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing  (WIEGO).

Where to Next?

We need to do more to advance girls education in relevant disciplines to the waste challenge and we need to expose them to the opportunities for making a contribution to sustainability through reducing all forms of waste.  We need to look at the many socio-economic factors and stereotypes and norms that keep women under-represented or marginalized in many sectors, including waste. And we need to identify and support girls, women and organizations that are already making a difference in applying STEM and innovation, including with recognition and funds.

Jennifer Breslin  - woman with brown hair

Jennifer Breslin

Jennifer Breslin is the Executive Director and Founder of Futuristas, a non-profit organization that seeks to build youth STEM identity and a more inclusive STEM ecosystem. Futuristas‘ projects and work has covered the space sector, biomimicry and the environment, AI and VR/AR, future foresight, gender equality in STEM, and strengthening global partnerships. Jennifer also serves on the NGCP National Champion Board.

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