Women in Waste Management : “Being able to convert every problem into equations is really useful”

Karina Zile Toon
© Kellermayer

“After my PhD I looked at what impactful things I could do. I’m not motivated by money. When I looked at the global challenges, I recognised that climate change is more important than anything else. But even though waste management accounts for 5% to 15% of global emissions depending on how you measure it, it’s a field that is not much talked about compared to electricity, transportation or heavy industry,” says Karina Zile on why she chose to work in the waste management sector.

It’s a decision that might seem strange when you look at her career up until then: Karina has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a PhD in computer science applied to genomics. “The fact that I could successfully finish my PhD showed me that I can switch freely between the fields,” she says. This way of thinking – this conviction that bringing diverse skills to the field is good – seems to be her main driver.

Defying expectations

The fact that she doesn’t want to be pinned down by expectations is also obvious when you consider her choices: born in Latvia, which she always felt was too small for her, she left at 18 for Canada where she started a business degree – quickly dropping out since she “just hated it”. After her work visa expired she moved to Scotland, where she started studying mathematics: “I had to work full-time to pay my bills, so I knew I couldn’t afford to study something complicated where you need to read a lot. So, I said: either I cannot afford to have a degree or I do the simplest one. And that’s why I did mathematics. You don’t need to study anything; everything is just obvious,” she explains, and laughs when confronted with the fact that it might not be obvious to everyone. “Yes, that’s what people keep telling me.”

After short stints in Finland and the USA she moved to London, where she obtained her PhD. “What I love about London is the density of ideas. There are so many people and most have big ideas, big goals and big ambitions. I like this feeling of purposefulness.” Now London is her base, from where she can travel the world working on Samudra, the project she started in 2020, after completing her PhD – which she did before she was even 30. “It’s hard to explain that it’s not a business. It’s not a company. I imagine it like a plumbing system between different organizations,” Karina says. “I believe we already have everything we need for waste management. There are big international funders and big waste management companies; in every government there are people who know something needs to be done in global waste management. We have lots of startups, NGOs and infrastructure providers who can build you anything from a shredder to a landfill to a W2E plant. But the point is to provide the plumbing between all these different parts so that the funding, expertise and ideas can flow freely through that. That is the idea behind Samudra.”

Her mathematical background doesn’t just help her to do her own calculations: “Being able to convert every problem into equations is really useful,” says the 30 year old, who concentrates on three goals: reducing the negative impact of waste on the climate, the environment and health.

I believe we already have everything we need for waste management. But the point is to provide the plumbing between all these different parts so that the funding, expertise and ideas can flow freely through that.
Karina Zile

Need to think differently

“I think the reason why we don’t get very far with waste management globally is because all the big international players look at the data and then make decisions about what they are going to do or fund. But these decisions are tailored to the world back when the data was collected. And they assume that nobody else is doing anything. They act in a vacuum,” Karina Zile explains. “First of all, the data is now quite old. And you don’t see the trends because you are looking at old data, which is just a snapshot, and not at how it’s evolving. You are not taking into account the fact that things are changing very rapidly right now. Plastic goes from 2% of waste to 20% very quickly.” Predicting these kinds of changes is very important if you are building infrastructure for future decades, she says. “You need to see this change coming, and also understand that there are a lot of players right now and you need to see that as a system. And then you need to see how your organisation might fit in.”

Not putting the blame on anyone

She also thinks that we get much further if we don’t blame anyone. “Governments want to be re-elected and big global companies want to increase their profits – it’s normal. I’m not trying to tell organisations what they should do but I’m trying to account for what their true motivation is and put it into my equation system.” What matters to her, and to Samudra, is the capacity of each stakeholder. Local stakeholders might not have much knowledge or finance but they know everyone in the village. They have the authority and data to know what people want. The 30 year old explains her approach as follows: big for-profit organisations might not have the desire to change the waste management system but they have marketing budgets they are quite happy to spend if this brings returns. “They might not want to use that money to improve governance but you can use their marketing money to start a recycling programme and then they can say that 500,000 bottles were recycled. Then it gets buzzy; something is done that shows the value of that company.” Karina Zile wants to find out what the capacity of each stakeholder is in terms of money, knowledge and visibility. “You have to keep in mind what they are motivated by, then you can see how each of them can contribute to a better future.”

She admits it is a challenge to get to talk to the right people: “I don’t aim for collaboration. I talk about the very precise coordination of sharing your confidential plans for the next year or next five years with other major players and debugging how we are going to go forward together. For that I need to reach the high-level decision-makers in the biggest stakeholders in waste management.

Impact on health

One point that is often forgotten is the impact of poor waste management on people’s health. “They count how many people have got sick from toxic substances and air pollution and how many have died. But in my opinion we should talk about exposure instead. Some people get sick and die; some get lucky and don’t. So you need to die to count. But I don’t think that luck should be a factor,” Karina explains. Even less focus is put on mental health: “Growing up as a kid in a landfill, what does that do to your brain?” she asks. “If you grow up poor in a clean environment, you can go to school, study and have a career. If you grow up in a dirty landfill eating leftovers from there, you have no self-esteem and no idea that you could have an education. Removing waste from municipalities helps improve people’s lives,” she says with conviction.

As always: you need big ideas and big ambitions to get ahead. And rethinking the way the industry works together might be a difficult but necessary step to take.

About Karina Zile:

Karina Zile has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a PhD in computer science applied to genomics. In 2020, the ambitious 30 year old founded Samudra. She wants to change how the waste management sector works and works together by building a “plumbing system” so that funding, expertise and ideas can flow freely. Karina Zile is based in London. www.samudra.world