Women in Waste Management

“Waste is sexy!”

Sian Cuffy Young toon2
© Weka/Kellermayer

“I love teaching and I love waste. And at a certain point I realised I can combine the two and make a living out of it,” Sian Cuffy-Young laughs. But to reach this conclusion, the 39-year-old entrepreneur from Trinidad and Tobago has had quite a long journey.

After studying physics at the University of the West Indies, Sian started teaching secondary school. Her father is a retired teacher, and as a very young girl she would sit in his class at an all-boys’ school and see how he not only passed on knowledge but also inspired the children. “When I got the opportunity to teach, I took it. I wanted to see if I could apply some of the same things I saw in my father’s class. And I loved it,” she recalls.
Sian was then accepted at the University of Leeds in the UK to do a masters in structural geology and geophysics. Even though she was awarded a partial scholarship, she still had to raise 250,000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (about €33,000). She gave it her best effort, but didn’t quite make it. So instead, she decided to do a masters in environmental engineering at her alma mater. “My father also taught me a love of nature and the environment. So I decided to work in this field.” Later she would receive a Fulbright Fellowship at Cornell University in the USA for Natural Resources Management and Policy.

Learning about waste

Even though she loved studying abroad, she always knew that she wanted to return to Trinidad and Tobago to contribute to her country. She had the opportunity to work for the national Solid Waste Management Company Limited (SWMCOL), where she learned about waste. After her boss recognised her talent for teaching, he gave her the opportunity to go to kindergartens and schools to educate children at all levels about waste.

Working in the waste industry and also in mining – she was an environmental officer at the National Quarries Company Limited for two years prior to joining SWMCOL – she also had to carve out her own space in a male-dominated industry. “The first time my boss sent me to a landfill, the men didn’t want to talk to me and sent me to fetch my boss,” Sian recalls. So she went away, but her boss wasn’t having any of it. “He told me I had to stand my ground and make them respect me.” She went to the landfill and told them they had to deal with her or not get the job done. “Which was so far from my personality,” she laughs. But it worked. Sian learned when to be soft and when to be steadfast: “I have a collaborative approach. I always ask people for their expertise. But I make it clear that I have the last word and that I get to decide. Once everybody understood my collaborative approach I could thrive, but it wasn’t easy.”

I want to shift the thinking from garbage to resource.
Sian Cuffy-Young

Starting a business

After leaving SWMCOL and unsure of what step to take next, she applied for a variety of jobs but didn’t get any. Her husband, who owns a barber shop, encouraged her to start her own business – at which she could only laugh, not believing she had it in her. But in a quiet moment she realised that she did have those skills. Unsure of how to proceed, Sian decided to take a leadership class where she had her next revelation: she would make talking about waste and educating people about waste her business model.

In 2015 she founded her company, social enterprise Siel Environmental Services Limited. But since she had just had a baby, she decided to stay at home with her son for six months before launching herself into getting the business off the ground. “In Trinidad and Tobago, we get three months of maternity leave, which I took when I had my daughter. But when my son was born, I had the opportunity to stay at home for longer,” the 39 year old explains.
In general, childcare provision in Trinidad and Tobago is very good, she says. But in many cases, cost is a limiting factor. She is also grateful for her extended family, who help out when both she and her husband have to work or when she’s travelling. “It has been a challenge to have small children and start a business,” Sian says. “I learned that I’m not a superhero and that I cannot do everything on my own. I learned to ask for help.”

Sian Cuffy-Young started her own business without any funding, relying only on her savings. Through some trial and error over time, she was able to carve out her place in the industry. “I knew that I wanted to work with children, and everything else sort of fell into place,” she explains. Now she specialises in waste education, waste management training and waste project consultancy – for individuals, families and businesses.
“For me, waste is sexy! In the environmental context, it’s not something that gets talked about a lot even though it’s essential. But I talk about it over and over again,” the entrepreneur explains. When she started out as a waste consultant, not only did she not see anyone in the Caribbean doing that job – there was also no one who looked like her in the industry: “Because I didn’t see it, I wanted to be it. In waste consulting, I’m the only one who looks like me,” Sian says. “I also want other women to be at the top of companies, doing their work in the industry, because young girls need to see us in this space so they get interested in it as well. I recognised that I can be this example. Young women need to be encouraged.”

Woman on a Mission

Her mission is to transform the way we think and act towards waste. “I want people to recognise that when you throw something away it becomes someone else’s problem,” Sian says. “I want to shift the thinking from garbage to resource. I understand that takes some time, but I’m in it for the long haul.”

According to the waste educator, there is still a lot of work to do in the Caribbean, such as making source separation mandatory or installing composting on a large scale. “84% of our whole waste stream is recyclable, but we have a recycling rate of about 7%. That needs to change,” Sian says. To make a fundamental change in waste management in the Caribbean, essential investments are needed. Even though more international investments are now coming to the region, she still feels like the island states have been somewhat forgotten in that regard. “We are highly affected by the effects of climate change. We need and want to be able to build up a resilience, to adapt, to mitigate. And there are a lot of young people with brilliant ideas. But we need funding.”

She doesn’t want her children to inherit the same problems and face the same challenges as she did. “But I see how smart children are. They know inherently what to do. They have it in themselves. I want to encourage them, to make them see that they have the ability to make things happen.”

About:

Sian Cuffy Young is the Founder and CEO of Siel Environmental Services Limited based in Trinidad and Tobago. Her academic qualifications include a B Sc (Hons) degree with a double major in Physics and a Masters in Environmental Engineering from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. She is also a Fulbright Hubert Humphrey Fellow from Cornell University and a Colorado Certified Environmental Educator.
With her first book for children “Ky’s Magical Adventures: Where the Garbage Goes” she wants to educate children on waste management.
www.sielenvironmental.com