Recycling coordinators manage recycling programs for city, county, or state governments or large organizations, such as colleges or military bases. They work with waste haulers and material recovery facilities to arrange for collecting, sorting, and processing recyclables such as aluminum, glass, and paper from households and businesses. Recycling coordinators are often responsible for educating the public about the value of recycling as well as instructing residents on how to properly separate recyclables in their homes. Recycling coordinators keep records of recycling rates in their municipality and help set goals for diversion of recyclables from the waste stream.
History of Recycling Coordinator Career
Coordinating recycling has a brief history as the job is known today. Only in the 1980s and early 1990s did many states begin setting recycling goals, creating the need for recycling coordinators at the local level. Prior to that time, private citizen groups or industry led most recycling efforts, so there was little need for municipal recycling coordinators. While much of today’s recycling is driven by a desire to improve the environment, earlier recycling was often driven by economic forces. During the Great Depression, individual citizens or groups, such as the Boy Scouts, held newspaper drives and turned the newspaper over to a recycler. The recycler paid a minimal amount for the collection of the newspapers and then generally sold the newspaper to industry, which recycled or otherwise reused the newspaper. During World War II, shortages in raw materials to support the war prompted citizens to hold drives for aluminum, rubber, paper, and scrap metal; this time the spirit of recycling was patriotic as well as economic.
Other than times of shortage, governments had little concern for how people disposed of waste, simply because there was relatively little waste. Municipalities had been dumping, burning, burying, or otherwise disposing of residents’ waste for years with little consequence. In 1898, New York City opened the first garbage- sorting plant in the United States, recycling some of its trash. The first aluminum recycling plants were built in the early 1900s in Chicago and Cleveland. By the 1920s, about 70 percent of U.S. cities had limited recycling programs, according to the League of Women Voters.
Can buybacks began in the 1950s; newspaper was first recycled in 1961 by a mill in New Jersey. By 1960, the United States recycled about 7 percent of its municipal waste. In the mid- 1960s, the federal government began to take greater interest in municipal waste-handling methods. Part of the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 granted money for states to develop waste-handling programs. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1970 and 1976 amendments defined types of municipal solid waste (MSW) and spelled out minimum standards for waste handling.
State and federal governments, such as branches of the Environmental Protection Agency, were the earliest to hire people who specialized in recycling. These recycling experts usually acted in an advisory capacity to local governments that were trying to develop their own programs.
In the 1990s, more states began to set recycling goals, driving the increase in need for recycling coordinators. By 1998, all but six states had set formal recycling goals. These goals are generally stated in terms of the percentage of waste to be diverted from ending up in a landfill. Most states set goals between 20 and 50 percent. To encourage counties to make the effort at a local level, many state governments offered grants to counties to fund new recycling programs, and many counties found they needed a full-time person to coordinate the new effort. Initially, only the most populous counties qualified for the grants to afford a recycling program because they could divert the highest volume from landfills.
The Job of Recycling Coordinators
As recycling becomes more widespread, fewer recycling coordinators are faced with the task of organizing a municipal program from scratch. Instead, recycling coordinators work to improve current recycling rates in several ways. While recycling coordinators spend some time on administrative tasks, such as meeting with waste haulers and government officials and writing reports, they often need a considerable amount of time for public-education efforts. One recycling coordinator in North Dakota notes that only a small portion of the average recycling coordinator’s job is spent sitting behind a desk.
Educating the public on proper separation of recyclables as well as explaining the need for recycling are a large part of a recycling coordinator’s job. Good oral communication skills are essential for a recycling coordinator to succeed in this role. Getting people who haven’t recycled before to start doing so can take some convincing. Recycling coordinators spread their message by speaking to community groups, businesses, and schools. They use persuasive speaking skills to urge people to do the extra work of peeling labels from and washing bottles and jars instead of just throwing them out, and separating newspapers, magazines, cardboard, and other types of paper. Even as recycling increases in this country, many people are accustomed to disposing of trash as quickly as possible without giving it a second thought. It is the task of a recycling coordinator to get people to change such habits, and how well a recycling coordinator is able to do this can make the difference in the success of the entire program.
In some communities, recycling coordinators have economics on their side when it comes to getting people to change their habits. In so-called pay-as-you-throw programs, residents pay for garbage disposal based on how much waste their household produces. So recycling, although it may mean extra work, makes sense because it saves the homeowner money. For example, residents may be charged extra for any waste they set out at the curb beyond one garbage can per week. In communities with these programs, recycling rates tend to be higher, and recycling coordinators have an easier task of convincing people to recycle. Another part of a recycling coordinator’s role as educator is answering questions about how recyclables are to be separated. Especially with new programs, residents often have questions about separating recyclables, such as what type of paper can be set out with newspaper, whether labels should be peeled from jars, and even keeping track of which week of the month or day of the week they should set their recyclables out with the trash. Fielding these types of calls always demands some portion of a recycling coordinator’s time.
Most recycling coordinators spend a minimal amount of time on record keeping, perhaps 5 percent, one coordinator estimates. The coordinator is responsible for making monthly, or sometimes quarterly, reports to state and federal government agencies. Recycling coordinators also fill out grant applications for state and federal funding to improve their programs.
Some recycling coordinators work on military bases or college campuses. The goal of a recycling coordinator in one of these settings is the same as a municipal recycling coordinator—getting people to recycle. Their responsibilities may differ, however. The recycling coordinator on a college campus, for example, has a new set of residents every year to educate about the college’s recycling program.
Recycling coordinators who come up with creative uses for waste may find opportunities in other fields as well. For example, recycling of computers and computer parts is a growing area. Some with knowledge in this area have founded their own companies or work for computer manufacturers.
Recycling Coordinator Career Requirements
Recycling coordinators need a variety of skills, so taking a variety of classes in high school is a good start. Classes in business, economics, and civics are a good idea to help build an understanding of the public sector in which most recycling coordinators work. Knowledge of how local governments and markets for recycled materials function is something you will need to know later, and civics and economics courses provide this framework. English and speech classes are vital to developing good oral and written communication skills that you use to spread the word about the importance of recycling. Mathematics and science will prove useful in setting recycling goals and understanding how recycling helps the environment.
Until recently, people with widely varying backgrounds and experience were becoming recycling coordinators. Enthusiasm, an understanding of recycling issues, and business acumen were more important than any specific degree or professional background. This is still true to some extent, as colleges generally don’t offer degrees in recycling coordination. Instead, a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies or a related area and strong communication skills are desirable. Some schools offer minors in integrated waste management. Classes may include public policy, source reduction, transformation technology (composting/waste energy) and landfills, according to the Environmental Careers Organization (ECO).
Useful personal skills include good communication and people skills for interacting with staff, contractors, government officials, and the public. Leadership, persuasiveness, and creativity (the ability to think of new ways to use collected materials, for example) also are important.
Exploring Recycling Coordinator Career
You can start to explore a career as a recycling coordinator by familiarizing yourself with the issues involved in the field. Why is sorting garbage so costly? Why are some materials recycled and not others? Where are the markets? What are some creative uses for recyclable materials? Find out what’s going on both nationally and in your area. Some states have more extensive recycling programs than others; for example, some have bottle deposit laws or other innovative programs to boost recycling efforts. Get to know who’s doing what and what remains to be done. Read industry-related magazines; two informative publications are Recycling Today (http://www.recyclingtoday.com/) and Resource Recycling (http://www.resource-recycling.com/). A useful book that focuses on environmental career possibilities is The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century, by the ECO.
Arrange a tour of a local material recovery facility and talk with the staff there. You might even volunteer to work for a recycling organization. Large and small communities often have groups that support recycling with fund drives and information campaigns. Also, most municipal public meetings and workshops are good places to learn about how you can help with recycling in your community.
Recycling coordinators are almost exclusively employed by some level of government; they oversee recycling programs at the city, county, or state level. A limited number of recycling coordinators may find work with waste haulers that offer recycling coordination as part of their contracts to municipalities. Recycling coordinators work in communities of all sizes—from rural countywide programs to urban ones. When states first mandated recycling, larger counties that generated more waste generally were the first to hire recycling coordinators. However, as more states set and achieve higher recycling goals, smaller cities and even rural areas need someone to coordinate their growing programs. At the state level, state environmental protection agencies or community development agencies may employ coordinators to administer state grants to and advise local recycling programs all over the state. Large organizations, such as colleges or military bases, are other employers of recycling coordinators.
A first job as a recycling coordinator is most likely to be with a smaller municipal program. Most colleges have a network of career referral services for their graduates, and city or county governments with openings for recycling coordinators often use these services to advertise positions to qualified graduates. Positions at the state level also may be available. Someone with previous experience with waste management projects, issues, and operations, in addition to the right educational background, is likely to get the more sought-after positions in larger cities and state governments. You can get hands-on experience through internships, volunteering, cooperative education, summer employment, or research projects, says the ECO.
You can gain experience during summers off from college, or if necessary, after college by volunteering or serving an internship with a recycling program in your area. If internships aren’t available, paid work at a waste facility is a way to earn money over the summer and learn the very basics of recycling. Volunteering for a waste management consulting firm or nonprofit environmental organization is another way to get practical experience with recyclables. Most colleges have their own recycling programs, and you may find part-time work during the school year in your own college’s recycling program. Contact the physical plant operations department or student employment services at your school.
In most cases, the position of recycling coordinator is the top spot in the recycling program. Advancement isn’t really an option, unless the coordinator moves to another, perhaps larger, municipal program, to a private employer, or in some cases, to a different field. There is a fair amount of turnover in the field because recycling coordinator positions, in many cases, are training ground for college graduates who eventually move on to other fields where they use skills they developed as recycling coordinators. Because recycling coordinators develop so many useful skills, they often find work in related fields, such as small business administration and nonprofit organizations or as government administrators.
Since many states have waste-handling projects, someone with good experience at the local level might move into a state-level job, such as recycling expert, a position in some states’ waste-handling departments. Opportunities with private businesses that have in-house recycling needs or with solid waste management consultants or businesses might also constitute advancement. Finally, recycling coordinators also have the opportunity to expand their own programs. Through their efforts, a modest program with a limited staff and budget could blossom into a full-scale, profitable venture for the community. The coordinator could conceivably extend the scope of the program; improve links with state or local government officials, the public, and private business and industry; receive more funding; add staff; and otherwise increase the extent and prominence of the program.
Salaries vary widely for recycling coordinators. Starting salaries range from $22,000 per year in smaller counties or cities to $40,000 and higher for coordinators in larger municipalities, according to The Complete Guide to Environmental Careers in the 21st Century. A salary survey conducted by the National Association of Counties puts the average starting wage in counties with populations under 25,000 at $19,568. The average starting wage in counties with populations of 100,000 to 249,999 was $41,968. Some of the highest salaries reported were in counties with populations over 1 million, such as Maricopa County, Arizona, where the starting wage was $60,507. Salaries vary in different regions of the country. Positions in areas with a higher cost of living, such as California, Arizona, New York, and Washington, D.C., for example, tend to pay more.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, median annual earnings of environmental engineers were $66,480 in 2004. Environmental engineering technicians had median annual earnings of $38,550 in 2004. A 2005 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that bachelor’s degree candidates in environmental engineering and environmental health engineering received starting offers averaging $47,384 a year.
Benefits vary, but most local governments offer fulltime employees a benefit package that generally includes paid health insurance; a retirement plan; and holiday, vacation, and sick pay.
Recycling coordinators are essentially administrators. As such, they primarily work indoors, either in their offices or in meetings or giving speeches. Recycling coordinators need to watch costs, understand markets, and work within budgets. They should be able to be firm with contractors when necessary. They need to demonstrate good judgment and leadership, and they may need to justify their decisions and actions to city council members or others. Stresses are part of the job, including dealing with government bureaucracy, dips in community participation, services that fall short of expectations, fluctuating markets for recyclables, and other less-than-ideal situations.
Generally, recycling coordinators work 40 hours per week if they are full-time employees. Some positions may be part time, but for both work arrangements, working hours are generally during the day with weekends off. Occasionally, recycling coordinators may need to attend meetings in the evening, such as a county or city board meeting, or speak before a community group that meets at night. Facility or landfill tours that a recycling coordinator may arrange or participate in to generate publicity for the program may be offered on weekends. Recycling coordinators may leave the office setting to visit the material recovery facility, which can be noisy and dirty if compacting equipment and conveyers are running.
Recycling Coordinator Career Outlook
The outlook for municipal recycling coordinators is good. According to the National Recycling Coalition, the recycling and reuse industry consists of approximately 56,000 establishments that employ over 1.1 million people, generate an annual payroll of nearly $37 billion, and gross over $236 billion in annual revenues. As states strive to meet their increasingly ambitious waste-reduction and recycling goals, people who can make it happen on the local level are going to be crucial. Although the recycling industry is subject to business fluctuations, demand and new technologies have created a viable market for recycled materials.
The recycling industry is also subject to political and social trends. Jobs will decline under administrations that do not allocate as much money for environmental concerns. On the other hand, more jobs may become available as engineers and technicians are attracted by the higher salaries offered in more popular technology- and finance-oriented fields. Environmental careers such as this one are also starting to be recognized as their own field, and not just subspecialties of other fields, such as civil engineering.
Nationwide, the waste management and recycling industries will be needing more people to run recovery facilities, design new recycling technologies, come up with new ways to use recyclables, and do related work. Private businesses are also expected to hire recycling coordinators to manage in-house programs.