The recycling industry has traditionally been a male dominated environment. With the once familiar scrap yard having rows of end of life vehicles stacked two or three high in a windswept, rain-soaked field, it is unsurprising that recycling attracts the number of people it does. Of course, these images no longer represent the main body of recycling activities, where sophisticated technological solutions are increasingly utilised to recover as much valuable material as possible in the most efficient manner. This is particularly true of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment and is likely to be even more important with electric vehicle (EV) batteries and their associated materials and components
In the case of EV battery recycling and reuse, there is an opportunity to cultivate a cleaner, higher technology related image that better matches the reality of what is actually taking place in the supply chain. The successful reuse of batteries requires sophisticated technological inputs and skilled, well-trained operators, who are effectively operating the original assembly process, but in reverse. These are no longer the dirty, labour intensive activities that were once associated with conventional materials recycling and there should be a range of employment opportunities that appeal to suitably skilled people, irrespective of their gender. However, given that the percentage of women currently active in the broader recycling industry is relatively low, the key question remains of what needs to be done to encourage more women to join the sector. The answer is not a simple one, but there is a general opinion that the current low number of women in recycling will not change until there are more females in senior management positions who can be role models, while actively promoting gender equality.
Additionally, it is also clear that it is vital to for the industry to take a proactive approach and to develop a focused marketing programme that begins early and includes education. In the specific case of EV battery recycling and reuse, the industry is still developing and refining the best approaches to be adopted, i.e. it is rapidly evolving and this would seem to be an ideal time to combine fresh thinking with a programme to encourage, for example, young graduates to join this important and growing industrial sector. Also, more broadly, the adoption of circular economy-related approaches to waste requires new ideas and innovative solutions. Achieving gender diversity at all levels of an organisation can help to encourage this type of new and broader thinking.
Of course, while it is clear that the number of women in the recycling industry is still very low, it is also true that the number is increasing. However, as in many other areas of employment, the situation is more complex than it first seems. Since it is not clear exactly what is meant by ‘women in recycling’, the actual number, or percentage, will vary significantly with the position in question. While there may well be a higher proportion of women working in areas such as human resources, accounting, customer service and other business support functions, the number to be found in the operations and management sides is typically small. Fortunately, there are moves to encourage more women to work in recycling. For example, the US-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has started a ‘Women in Recycling’ programme which aims to build a community amongst the women in recycling. It is also seeking to increase women’s knowledge, skills and visibility into management and leadership roles. In the UK, the British Metals Recycling Association now has a female president.
Another positive point is that the image of waste and recycling has changed in recent years and will continue to do so as we move towards the greater adoption of sustainable development and resource conservation approaches, wherever possible. It is now recognised that, although scientific and technological developments will be key to meeting internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, gender equality will be another important factor. Over the last 20 years, much effort has been made to encourage women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects and, in 2017, 41% of Europe’s 18 million scientists and engineers were women (in some European countries such as Lithuania and Portugal, women actually form the majority). If this progress can be achieved across the broader scientific community, there is no reason why the same cannot be achieved in the EV battery recycling sector. After all, the STEM subjects offer ideal foundations for the types of skills and innovation that are becoming increasingly necessary in the EV battery recycling sector. There is no reason why they should not prove to be equally attractive to both women and men.
Written by Martin Goosey, Envaqua Research Ltd