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Claiming a seat at the table

When I started writing for Recycling International 10 years ago, I was fresh out of college. I soon realised I wasn’t just one of few twenty-somethings at conferences and trade shows, I was one of few female delegates. I’ve seen the landscape slowly change around me, with more younger faces staring back at me throughout my career. And more women’s names on the list of both speakers and entrepreneurs.

The recycling sector is no longer a dirty industry, and no longer a man’s world either. I’ve seen and heard enough to know that. Almost 20 women made our first annual recycling innovators Top 100 – and I’m confident there will be even more listed on the 2022 edition. To recognise this social evolution, our upcoming issue features an article about female entrepreneurs who’ve made a name for themselves in the global scrap scene.

I would love to turn this into a regular feature to prominently showcase best practices led by women all over the world. Consistency is the key word here. That, paired with genuine curiosity and interest.

Change starts with your own actions, I believe. So I started putting female scrappers more in the picture during the last few years. I mean literally, by selecting the photographs for the magazine more carefully. Who are those smiling men in helmets and suits anyway? I prefer to have the magazine look like the world in which we live.

As you may recall, the world celebrates International Women’s day on March 8. I have to admit it’s never been a date marked on my calendar. I’d like to think that I bring my best to the table regardless of seasonal momentum. The idea of claiming the spotlight on one day of the year that is supposedly ‘special’ doesn’t make sense to me. I figure the year has 365 days. We have to make the most of all of them – why settle for a narrow window of just 24 hours?

Sure, you can do a lot in 24 hours. But you can’t change the world. Ask the ‘mayor for a day’ winners living in your city. Looking at it from a negative point of view (which I rarely do) bookmarking women’s accomplishments so specifically could be seen as virtue signalling. From a more optimistic viewpoint, it’s a way to call attention to a social phenomenon.

As a perfectionist and critical thinker, I can see both sides of the coin. I mean, let’s face it; it’s not exactly rare to see decision makers and legislators climb a podium to address something that they don’t fully comprehend. Mouthing words that seems more like a quick fix statement to satisfy our general need for ‘something to change’. Whether that relates to more recycled content, less plastic pollution, better recycling infrastructure, or, indeed, more diversity in the workforce.

I realise that this word may trigger some people. I’m not sure I quite like the word myself. Mostly because, as I’ve said before, it is often based on a vague idea and marketing speak rather than actual vision that comes from the heart. As with the sustainable design of a product, as long as something is an afterthought, you can hardly expect it to make a difference.

Real change needs real work, and real action. Banning straws won’t save the world. Nor would putting more women on posters and saying ‘job well done’. The latter is especially true for women of colour. Warning for another trigger word; tokenism. (Including something for the sake of including it, thus proving you’re one of the ‘good guys’.) Representation matters, yes. But representation without a soul is meaningless.

The question may arise; “But why does the industry have to change?” I understand people feel comfortable with the status quo. It’s the foundation for a lot of innovation that kept the world going for so long. It may seem unnecessary or scary to change it. In turn, I wonder what some people are really scared of. Perhaps that their job is on the line? That they’ll have to be more competitive? Or is it just ego?

In the recycling arena, competition is not only healthy, it’s vital for our survival. Recyclers have long since realised that they need to branch out, diversify their services and look at the big picture. Relying blindly on tradition won’t take us to the next level. Progress requires discussion and bold, new ideas.

Female ceo’s, researchers, engineers, product designers, scientists and industry advocates have proven time and again that they are capable of creating successful business models and inspiring solutions. That they deserve a place at the board room table, and on that big keynote speech podium.

Female empowerment is a term that is deeply personal to me. I know I wouldn’t be who I was today without my mother, who raised me and my sister as a full-time working single mom. My grandmother supported us whenever she could (which was practically every day) by taking care of us and managing the household while my mom was busy paying the bills. This dynamic worked for us. It also helped me appreciate career women and their work ethic while instilling respect for those powerful hands who run the ship at the home front.

It was the combined efforts of my mother and my grandmother that motivated me to keep drawing, reading, writing; trying to find who I was, what I was good at. And to develop my skills, creativity and passion for language – all in a safe and warm environment. They provided such solid footing that I consider my triumphs partly theirs, and I don’t mind sharing. I’m proud of where I come from, and proud of my upbringing.

Family, I think, is the best example of a closed loop. Everyone is connected. The pain of your loved ones, is your pain. And your happiness, is theirs. It’s a (not always perfect) harmony; an organic system with room enough for everyone, a common goal and a strong sense of team spirit.

Many recyclers, especially those running family businesses, already see the value of that mindset. They know that no man (or woman) is an island.

I’d like to end this column with a call to action; let’s talk more with (not to) each other. And listen more to each other. The best conversation is one that elevates and stimulates all parties involved and welcomes new perspectives.

Together, we have a world to gain.

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