Women in Waste Management : “The waste management industry needs to find solutions to problems created by others”

Cartoon Marion Huber Humer klein
© Weka/Kellermayr

For Marion Huber-Humer, it was clear when she started studying landscape planning and environmental engineering that she wanted to work in the field of water management, water protection and river engineering. But when looking for a topic for her diploma thesis at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), she coincidentally came across a course in a different field. And was hooked. So, in her diploma thesis she focused on methane emissions from landfills and their mitigation by microbial methane oxidation. Her dissertation on the ‘Abatement of Landfill Methane Emissions by Microbial Oxidation in Biocovers Made of Compost’ then took a more in-depth look at this research subject. She has stayed in the field of waste management ever since. With no regrets.

While studying at BOKU she had a part-time job at a civil engineering office but didn’t particularly enjoy the work there. “It always went according to the same pattern,” she says. As a curious person, she felt that she would be better off in research. “Even as a child, I was always busy with my chemistry set or exploring something in nature,” Marion Huber-Humer remembers. For 13 years she was a senior scientist and a working group and project leader as well as a lecturer at the Institute of Waste Management at BOKU before she became a university professor of global waste management at the same institute, as well as its head.

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Research close to public and industry

“Our work is very application-oriented. We focus on the day-to-day needs of the public and waste management industry, but at the same time we do a lot of basic research,” she explains, adding the motto of the institute: “Waste management must be oriented towards nature and people.” Meaning on the one hand the researchers draw analogous conclusions to natural processes in order to apply them to waste engineering and waste management issues. On the other hand, the sector relies heavily on people: How far can you get people to separate waste in the first place? What behavioural and thought patterns are behind this? “That is why we are also a very interdisciplinary team, from sociologists to technicians,” says 52-year-old Huber-Humer, and it is obvious how much she enjoys working in such a diverse and open environment.

The world of waste management is always changing and so scientists also have to look to the future: What could be the problems of the future? How might society develop? What products will reach their end of life and require new recycling solutions? “A prime example are electronic devices,” Huber-Humer says. “Until a few years ago, there were only picture tubes. The recycling lines were geared towards that. But then came flat screens, which need different treatment.” Another good example are photovoltaic panels. Using material flow analyses and forecasts, scientists can show when solutions are needed. At the same time, they can help develop them.

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“We have to ask ourselves which freedoms are permissible in order to preserve the overall system of Planet Earth and society.”

A global approach is needed

As with so many things, the legal framework is key. “Sometimes that still lags behind,” says Huber-Humer. “Of course, it is a balancing act: on the one hand, the protection of the environment and society is essential. On the other hand, innovation is needed to get to a circular economy. What is unavoidable, however, is that we finally think in terms of circular economy and not waste management.” According to Huber-Humer, this also means rethinking what is labelled as waste – and what is not. She also advocates for a global approach: “Economic and waste flows are global, so the main legal requirements should also be global. But the terms and definitions are already a problem.” Not to mention very different technical standards in the Global North and Global South. Minimum requirements should be set at least. This would also make controls easier. She is convinced that “as long as it’s so cheap to ship waste that we cannot or do not want to treat out of the country, it will happen.” And in the same breath she voices another unpopular opinion: “The standardisation of certain products would save us an enormous amount of effort.” If there were just one design for glass or plastic bottles for all beverages all over the world, everyone would know how to collect and recycle them. It would be easier for the public, for sorting technology and for recycling. This goes for a variety of products, of course. “But in our current economic system this is unthinkable,” Huber-Humer says. “Of course, it would also restrict certain freedoms. But we have to ask ourselves which freedoms are permissible in order to preserve the overall system of Planet Earth and society.” Marion Huber-Humer is not only a woman with vast knowledge; she also has a certain kind of idealism to save the world.

Change the system

Another buzzword of the moment is design-for-recycling. “For decades, the waste problem was laid on the sector’s doorstep. But quite frankly, we need to find solutions to problems that others have created,” the professor says. As long as a product’s end-of-life phase is not considered when it is designed, a circular economy is just wishful thinking. “We need a complete change of the whole system. Now it seems there is the political will to do so. I hope these are not just platitudes and we will see true change.”

Some change is definitely coming to the industry: the traditionally male-dominated sector is attracting more and more women – especially in the university environment, as Huber-Humer points out. In the past 10 years, a number of professorships have been filled by women – from Huber-Humer in Vienna, Anke Bockreis in Innsbruck and Vera Susanne Rotter in Berlin to Christine Dornack in Dresden or Sabine Flamme in Münster, to name just a few. “An older colleague said: ‘Well, it’s probably logical. At home, my wife is also responsible for the waste,’” Marion Huber-Humer remembers. “Fortunately, there is a generational change coming, where these kinds of slightly chauvinistic ‘jokes’ are no longer acceptable. But I would say, as a woman in waste management, you have to fight harder for your role and status. Again and again.” But Huber-Humer is not one to let that deter her.


Marion Huber-Humer is Professor of Global Waste Management and Head of the Institute for Waste Management and Circularity at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU). She is also Vice-President of ISWA Austria and a member of the IWWG Managing Board. Her main research areas are the aftercare and emission reduction of landfills, waste analysis and emission monitoring as well as biological treatment and recovery.