The solid waste industry in North America has been growing for years, and the need for drivers and helpers is abundant. While these position shortages might get the majority of the press, there is also a need for solid waste planners with a proper understanding of the tenets of environmentally, fiscally and socially responsible management of MSW. The question is, what can we do to expand the pool of qualified candidates?
Due to the way solid waste is administered at the municipal and county level in the U.S., its management is inherently a local play; therefore, all local governments may need solid waste planners. In major metropolitan areas, this need is especially robust. Beyond the municipal level, there is also a need for planners in the private sector as well as in other levels of government.
The following entities are just some of those likely to be employers of planners and analysts: local governments; special/solid waste planning districts, agencies and authorities; solid waste management and planning firms looking for consultants; local, regional and national solid waste and environmental trade associations; solid waste processing and disposal facilities; commercial solid waste haulers; federal and state agencies; school systems, colleges, universities and large professional campuses with many buildings; technology and other service providers/start-ups; and established engineering firms with planning divisions.
Despite the need for these professionals, there is a notable absence of undergraduate programs in the U.S. that offer solid waste management planning as a major, minor or concentration.
To get an understanding of the potential interest in a pool of solid waste planning candidates specifically trained by colleges and universities, I called a handful of organizations (of the types listed above). The standard answer regarding if they needed the services of these professionals was an emphatic, “yes.” The consensus was that a nuanced understanding of the solid waste and recycling industry would make for genuinely competitive and qualified candidates. Most of the organizations I spoke with were actively struggling to find candidates with the backgrounds needed to perform assignable duties.
The support for these undergraduate programs was also bolstered by the fact that never before in history has there been a bigger need to mitigate the impacts of solid waste management affecting the globe. Between the mass marine debris issue in our oceans and tributaries, the adverse cultural effects of litter and dumping, and the flawed waste processing and collection infrastructure in place in many areas around the world, people have never been more in tune with how waste is handled. Those with a background in solid waste planning can help address these systemic problems.
To be prepared for the challenges solid waste planners would face in their careers, planners need to understand:
- the regulatory framework under which the waste industry operates;
- the jargon and vocabulary of the industry;
- the primary methods and approaches to waste management;
- the human element (waste is essentially evidence of life);
- cultural impacts due to changing solid waste patterns;
- the operational best management practices to reduce waste production, containerize litter, reduce waste’s negative impact on our landscape, and generally increase waste diversion;
- safe materials management (i.e., what materials should not be mixed, how to safely transport material resources, and how to communicate that effectively);
- how engineering management impacts planning and how to work efficiently with experts like solid waste engineers so that better outcomes are possible;
- the climate and sustainability impacts of solid waste;
- how geography affects solid waste management (and vice versa);
- the urgency of MSW management due to the potential public health impacts of waste not being collected in a timely fashion;
- the economic impact of what new contracts and programs could mean to municipal budgets or a business’s bottom line; and
- the importance of public engagement and public speaking, among many others.
Suppose you are reading this as a member of the industry today. In this case, you too may have been one of those individuals inspired in high school or college to pursue a degree in solid waste management, but quickly found your options limited or missing. Let’s hope colleges and universities are listening, and that the same dearth of options that has been historically presented to interested parties doesn’t continue to stifle would-be participants from entering the industry.