Waste Management Career Field

Waste Management Career Field Structure

Waste Management CareersWaste management is an enormous industry encompassing workers who handle waste in its various forms and stages of treatment or disposal. Waste management workers, from refuse collectors who cover every street across the nation to scientists in labs who devise better ways to reduce pollution, work toward a common goal: preserving human health and the environment.

The field of waste management can be divided several different ways. Workers may work with hazardous waste or nonhazardous waste; they may be employed in the private sector or the public sector. Waste management careers may focus on air, water, or soil concerns; waste produced by industries; or government agency regulation of such industries. The choices for those who are interested in the field are varied, as are the requirements for various types of jobs. Those who enjoy working outdoors and aren’t interested in pursuing postsecondary schooling may find jobs as refuse collectors, landfill workers, or assistants to professionals in the waste industry. With some postsecondary education, the opportunities increase. Equipment operators are needed in such waste operations as landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and some industries. Technicians who take samples and work in labs work in all stages of waste treatment and environmental study. Engineers devise ways to improve waste management systems and scientists study effects on the environment and humans.

Employment opportunities exist with private waste handling firms like the giant Waste Management, Inc. (WMI) and with smaller, independent collectors, haulers, and processors. There are jobs on in-house staffs of generators of high volumes of waste including chemical, food, and metals manufacturers. Other employers include state and regional EPA authorities, local municipal authorities, engineering consulting firms, and emergency response companies.

Although opportunities certainly still exist in the public sector, trends are definitely toward privatization, and many waste management jobs of the future will be in the private sector. According to a 2001 report sponsored by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, approximately 45 percent of the 27,000 waste management organizations in the U.S. were privately held companies. This sector of the industry generated about 76 percent of the $43.3 billion in total revenue. The report also indicated that the majority of workers in the solid waste management industry, 41.1 percent, were employed at private sector organizations. A National Solid Wastes Management Bulletin stated that communities were looking to privatization to lower costs, improve quality of service, and more efficiently manage waste removal. Private sector employers in the waste management industry include the following:

Disposal companies

Regulations for solid and hazardous waste state how companies must transport, treat and dispose of waste. So special companies have evolved that do nothing but dispose of other companies’ waste for them. Multibillion-dollar companies such as Waste Management Inc. (WMI) own operations across the nation and employ many types of waste management professionals. Large companies grow even larger by acquiring smaller companies all over the country. For example, WMI merged with USA Waste in 1998 and as a result serves almost 21 million customers nationwide, providing commercial, industrial, municipal, and residential services. Smaller firms that specialize in treating one type of waste, such as waste from metal finishing, have also been affected. Stricter laws and efforts to be cost-effective have put pressure on small, local waste-hauling or disposal companies. In many cases, these firms, no longer able to compete in their markets, have been purchased by larger companies such as WMI.


Today, large industrial firms and others that generate significant amounts of waste are likely to have their own in-house environmental staffs to ensure their companies are in compliance with waste-related environmental regulations. The environmental staff at a large company may include scientists, engineers, technicians, attorneys, and communications professionals. Smaller companies may have a professional or two on staff or hire out all their work to consultants. Industry has sunk billions of dollars into waste-management and other compliance. Good public relations, high costs for disposal, soaring costs for noncompliance, including the threat of lawsuits, and other factors demand vigilance in current waste-management activities and initiative in developing new waste-management processes and strategies.


Consulting companies advise other companies how to handle solid or hazardous waste problems, design waste-management plans and provide manpower to carry them out, and provide routine waste management monitoring and consulting. Some large consulting firms have their own testing and laboratory services. There are approximately 100 large environmental consulting firms in the United States, plus hundreds of smaller operations, including many one-person outfits.

Emergency response companies

A few companies specialize in handling emergency waste-management situations, such as when there’s a tank fire or a train collision producing leaking toxic and flammable chemicals. Because the work is very hazardous and involves a lot of liability, there aren’t many such companies. Large private industrial companies, such as DuPont, Dow Chemical Company, and Monsanto, usually have their own in-house response teams.

Public sector employers include the following:

Federal agencies

The EPA is just one federal government agency that uses solid and hazardous waste management experts and technicians. The U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service all have waste management needs and employ scientists and other professionals accordingly. The government contracts with private waste management consultants and firms for some projects, such as almost all of the cleanups of government-owned hazardous waste sites.

State and local agencies

Waste Management CareersJobs include state regulatory and inspection officials; state EPA scientists, engineers, technicians, and other professionals; and administrators, engineers, technicians, and laborers in municipal public works departments, at municipal water plants, and at other public facilities. Local authorities have long been responsible for handling municipal solid waste. There also is a trend now toward increased work in hazardous waste management at the local level by states and counties or municipalities. Increasing reluctance to use incinerators and landfills is changing how the United States handles MSW. According to the EPA, recycling accounted for 72 million tons of material otherwise bound for incinerators and landfills in 2003. This was an increase of 57 million tons since 1980, marking a steadily growing trend. More municipalities are developing waste management plans, including formal recycling programs, in order to reduce, recycle, and compost more waste and to use other methods less.

In addition to the areas described so far, there are subspecialties and special niches in waste management. For example, a part of the hazardous waste-management field is the handling and disposal of medical wastes generated by hospitals, labs, health care facilities, and pharmaceutical companies and the handling of other small-volume generators, such as university research facilities and even households.

Another area is international waste management work. As the United States learns to manage and control its own wastes, it is also starting to sell its expertise abroad in places, such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Some of the large U.S. waste management and engineering/ environmental consulting firms work all over the world. Waste Management Inc. is one such company.

Compliance with strict government regulations can be costly for industries. Working for companies to help them find cost-effective ways to comply with regulations is a growing area of the waste management industry. Being environmentally friendly is expensive for many industries, but it is usually in the company’s best interests, both from a public relations standpoint and the company’s bottom-line. In many cases, reducing waste forces a company to find a better process or material and in the end can actually save the company money.

The EPA operates WasteWise, a program begun in 1994 that has grown to more than 1,300 corporations, government agencies, universities, hospitals, and other organizations committed to cutting costs and conserving natural resources through solid waste reduction. Waste- Wise’s “Partners of the Year” for 2004 included Anheuser- Busch Companies Inc., which reduced the amount of aluminum used in its cans by 5.1 million pounds; reduced the thickness of its cardboard packaging, saving 7.5 million pounds of paperboard; and maintained an expansive waste reuse program. Pitney Bowes Inc. set up a nationwide toner cartridge recycling program, as well as recycled 11.4 million pounds of materials in 2003. Another WasteWise partner, Guardian Automotive, was recognized for cutting waste and becoming an industry leader in recycling at its Ligonier Plant in Indiana.

Companies are using similar methods to better handle toxic waste and other environmental needs. Those include:

Source reduction. For a long time, waste management and pollution control focused on end-of-the-pipe measures, such as scrubbers to clean up emissions and incinerators to burn wastes. More recently, companies have been focusing on ways to reduce waste at the source by using different raw materials or processing chemicals, for example, or by changing product packaging. Source reduction usually costs less than end-of-the-pipe measures because there’s less waste to treat, haul away, or otherwise handle. One source reduction success story reported by the non-profit National Recycling Coalition is Federal Express. The company saved $20 million through various reduction strategies, including reducing the thickness of their shipping envelope by 40 percent.

Chemical substitution. The paper processing company Intertox America started using hydrogen peroxide instead of using toxic chlorines to bleach paper.

Industrial partnering. Household cleaner manufacturer S.C. Johnson asked companies that supply its raw manufacturing materials to help Johnson develop less wasteful packaging and reduce toxic chemicals in its products. This industrial partnering resulted in much faster research and development than if Johnson had done everything on its own.

Green labeling. Manufacturers who can label their products as “green” (friendly to the environment) stand to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. In 1992, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provided guidelines for how manufacturers can advertise and label green qualities. Among other things, it asked businesses not to use broad, unspecific terms, such as earth friendly or environmentally safe, not to claim long-existing positive environmental qualities as if they were just developed, and to distinguish between environmental qualities of the product and environmental qualities of the packaging. The FTC revised those guidelines in 1998. Now, packages can be labeled as recycled, for example, if they contain reused, reconditioned, or remanufactured materials, as well as recycled raw material. According to the FTC, the expansion of these terms is consistent with increased consumer understanding of recycling.