How I got into waste management

Before 2009

Riga, Latvia

What did you believe in as a kid? Santa Claus? Magic fairies? I believed in a trash can. Whenever something was broken or old my mum would always say “just put it in the trash can”. No matter what, it was always the easiest solution. We would take a bag of trash to the big bin behind our apartment building. From there it magically disappeared. Well, I would leave for school at 8am and get back from work after 10pm; a lot of other things were probably going on in my neighbourhood without me noticing. It came as a shock when my mum invited me to “go check out that new shopping mall that was built on top of the old landfill”. That day I found out about landfills. My trash can content did not disappear by magic after all. It’s surprising how old I was when I found out. It just wasn’t a topic people talk about.

From the ruins of Soviet Union, through the great economical struggle, by the early 2000’s we, people in Latvia, finally arrived at the point where everything we bought came in free plastic bags. My grandmother didn’t have to wash our collection of five plastic bags over and over again any more. They didn’t drip on me any more when I was brushing my teeth in the bathtub (we didn’t have a sink). We started to refer to March as “the month of flying bags” - plastic bags littered throughout the winter incorporated themselves into ice and piles of snow; as the temperatures peaked above zero in March everything melted and the bags took to the skies and into people’s faces. I remember the day the first McDonald’s opened in Latvia. There were a 1000 people protesting in the street. This might not seem much to you, but there were only two million people in the whole country. It was the first restaurant that would serve everything in single use packaging. McDonald’s was positive that it is all recyclable, but the reality was that we didn’t have any recycling facilities in the country. Neither did we have the money to sort the rubbish and ship the recyclables to another country. Countering the protestors, there were another 1000 people in the street - the biggest queue that has ever been observed in Latvia, all eager to have their first truly Western meal. Soon everyone got used to the extra rubbish that came along with the improvement of the economy. Given the bigger picture, McDonald’s stopped being such a big deal.

June 2009

Toronto, Canada

As soon as I was 18, I bought flights to Canada and a short-term work visa. Rumours had it that Toronto is a paradise where there are jobs, money and freedom. When I landed in Toronto Pearson airport, it was my first time in English speaking country. It was my first time properly alone not knowing anyone on the whole continent, and not really speaking English either. To add to the experience, it was the 28th day of the “garbage strike”. The city was swimming in garbage and smelled really bad. A couple of days later the strike ended, the city was cleaned up, I moved into my first ever apartment and life moved on.

October 2019

London, UK

Fast forward 10 years to autumn 2019. I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis on applications of machine learning to transcriptomic data. Living in central London, having a fancy title from a prestigious University College London… I am not going to say I’m lucky, I worked damn hard to get here. Thinking about the hardest times I’ve been through in these 10 years makes me cry. I wish there would be a time machine for bank transfers, so that I could send a fiver to myself back in the days when I had nothing to eat. So many times I’ve been stuck in this situation - when you have no cash and less than a fiver on your bank, which means you can neither withdraw cash nor afford anything that can be bought with a card. Those days are long gone. Now that I’ve finished my PhD, I had to decide what to do with my life. Everyone expects me to get a well paid job. I thought that having a good education is an advantage that will allow me to have more opportunities. Surprisingly, most people think almost the opposite - that having expertise in machine learning and genomics (both are trendy buzz words) means that I must find a job in one of these areas and other options are no longer (feasibly) available to me. What I see as my greatest asset, others see as a limitation that pre-defines and limits of what I can do with my life. I started looking for jobs and found some very interesting options. I noted them down, but I couldn’t push myself to apply. Something didn’t feel right.

I gave myself a couple of weeks to simply read about the world. I was reading Nature, The Economist, Wired, blogs of random people and everything in between. Global urbanisation, preventing ecological collapse, improving human lives, sustainable development… All the things I read about seemed more worthy of my time than the positions listed on the job boards. I cried, I cried the whole day. And then I made a decision to change the world.

I remembered that day in 2016, not long after I moved into my new apartment in London. The previous tenants left behind many cans of paint and a couple of broken chairs; they were taking up the whole storage cupboard. I’ve done my research and found a recycling center about an hour walk from the apartment. Their website said they accept broken furniture and paints (both open and unopened cans) among other things. I’ve loaded the unopened paints into my backpack, open paints into bags and decorated my shoulders with broken chair frames. There was no way I could fit into a bus in this configuration, so I had to walk. All my muscles were hurting by the time I got there. I expected there to be an entrance, but there was none - only a locked driveway and a hut with a security guard. I approached the security guard with a smile, “No pedestrian access, you need a car to bring your waste here” she said. I explained that I don’t have a car and I walked for an hour; she agreed to accept my waste… until she realised that apart from the bits of chairs, everything else was paint cans. “We don’t accept paints here, it’s not profitable. You’ll have to take them back home” she said. I told her that their website says they do accept paints, “yes, we used to accept them” she said. I couldn’t face dragging the whole 20 litres back home. Besides, what would I do with them next? I asked if they could bin them for me and she repeated “you’ll have to take them back home”. I noticed a public trash can a couple of meters down the road. “If I can’t recycle them here, then I’ll just have to bin them” I said as I grabbed one of the bags full of paint cans and carried it to the trash can. I returned into the hut to pick up the next bag but as I turned around I slammed myself into a metal door that was now firmly locked. The security guard looked angry - “You are not allowed to bin hazardous waste. It has to be disposed of properly. I’ve called for the manager, she will deal with you.” I waited, nothing happened. I was late for my lab meeting. I asked how long she will keep me locked up, she said I have to wait for the manager “to come and deal with me”. The manager finally arrived, the security guard told her about my misdeeds. The manager turned to me and I got to tell her my side of the story. She smiled, unlocked the door and said I am free to go. She gently put her hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes, “next time you have something that shouldn’t go into the trash can… just wait until it gets dark and bin it then, don’t cause trouble” she said. Yeap, I’ve heard that from a manager of a recycling facility in central London.

Remember the month of flying bags? The great Toronto garbage strike of 2009? This paint can story. How much worse is it in low income countries? What is behind those photos of ocean plastic pollution, open burning of electronic waste and people living in landfills? I realised that an opportunity to change the world was right in front of me.