Women in Waste Management : "During the lockdowns people thanked us for being so brave to go out on the streets."

Eva Kozma Cartoon, Women in Waste Management
© Kellermayr

It’s over 30 degrees Celsius on a bright and sunny day in late June as I arrive at the headquarters of the Vienna waste management department MA48. As I dismount my bike – slightly dishevelled and decidedly sweaty – a friendly blonde greets me, extending her hand (a nice gesture after all this fist bumping and waving of more than two years of Covid): “Hi, I’m Eva.”

Eva Kozma has just finished her tour of the day. She drives one of the 300 garbage trucks that collect Vienna’s waste. The 42 year old is one of only five women working in the garbage collection fleet in Austria’s capital. Five days a week she drives one of the big garbage trucks through the often narrow streets of the city, collecting biowaste or waste paper.

She joined Vienna’s waste management department in 2008, responding to a call for applications at the time, which was also specifically aimed at women. “Until then, I had worked in sales or catering. I wanted to try something different and since I had my truck driver’s licence, I applied,” Eva Kozma says. “I also wanted to get more driving experience,” she adds with a smile.

She had decided to get a truck driver’s licence years ago after a friend, who was a farmer and also had a horse and therefore needed a special licence to be allowed to drive with a horse trailer, got one. “I thought: not only can I drive for her but maybe I will have a horse myself one day.” But in all honesty, there were not that many opportunities to hone her truck-driving skills.

With open arms

After she had enrolled and done some test drives, she was allowed to go on her first tour. “I remember at the beginning I often had difficulties driving in the city. There are narrow turns and I often had to reverse several times to get around the bend,” she explains.

But it wasn’t just that; starting to work in a male-dominated industry was not easy either. “I’ve always worked mainly with women and now I was basically the only one. It was difficult at first.” Not so much because of the behaviour of the men, who, as Eva Kozma says, welcomed her into their ranks. “If they had any misgivings about a woman driving the truck, they didn’t show it. At least not to me.” But she had to adapt and to find a way to deal with her co-workers. For her it was also about being friendly but not encouraging overly close relationships: basically to be seen as a regular co-worker for the men. “I must say, all of them were really helpful and nice. They are just great.”

I've always worked mainly wiht women and now I was basically the only one. It was difficult at first."
Eva Kozma

Eva Kozma’s workday starts quite early at 6 a.m., when she arrives at the MA48 centre in Lobau where she checks her truck and then starts the tour by collecting “her boys”, as she calls her colleagues who ride outside the truck, at another centre. It’s always the same team working together, which she really enjoys. “You get to know each other very well. We are simply a well-coordinated team,” she explains. Depending on the tour she gets off work at around 2 p.m. Others might have difficulties with those working hours, but Eva Kozma just laughs: “I really don’t mind getting up early. And those hours are much better than anything I ever had in catering. And here I also get paid regularly.”

New appreciation for waste management

Since working for MA48 she has a different view on waste management. “Since I've been working here, I’m much better at separating waste,” she explains. “I see much more what really happens to our waste: at the city’s composting plant, for example, where the organic waste is processed and then ends up back in the gardens as compost.”

Does she think people appreciate the work she and her colleagues do? “I would say yes. People see our work and value it. Also, the majority of people try to keep Vienna clean.

Of course, there are situations, you know when cars have to wait behind the garbage truck, they can get impatient. When I see a way to let them pass, I do, and they appreciate that. But in a city that is not always possible,” the truck driver says. “But kids love us. They always watch us work and wave. They are adorable,” she laughs.

The most powerful experiences she had were during the beginning of the pandemic. Waste management employees are of course classed as key workers and thus their work never stopped. “When you drive onto the Tangente – the urban motorway is one of the busiest streets in Vienna – and there is no one else there, that’s scary,” she says, remembering the time of the first lockdown. “None of us knew what was coming and people were simply afraid. They locked themselves up in their houses. You could only see them waving out from behind their windows, like in a horror film. Also, and I have experienced this a few times, people thanked us for being so brave and being on the street. That frightened me too.” It was good to see the city come back to life, she says.

Workplace for women

She encourages other women to join the waste management sector. “Just try it!” she says, smiling. “Most probably don’t know they can. I think women also do a good job working outside the truck, taking the garbage bins there. But this really is hard physical labour. And it might be too much for most women in the long run.” Even though she loves her job, people should be aware that it is in fact hard work being part of the fleet. “You are on the streets no matter the weather. In summer when it’s 35 degrees or in winter when it’s freezing, you are always outdoors the whole day.”

What she loves best about her job? “That I can do it. That I know no matter how narrow the street, how tight the curve, and we’re talking about a few centimetres, I can drive there. I have that security now and to be honest it is really satisfying.”

About Eva Kozma

After working in sales and catering, Eva Kozma joined Vienna’s waste management department as a truck driver in 2008. On her current tours, she collects biowaste with her garbage truck. The 42 year old lives in Vienna.