So You Want A Career In Recycling?

Understanding the complex cost and performance issues associated with municipal recycling programs is critical for those who work in the field, since many Americans believe that recycling will pay for itself. In fact, the new industries and job opportunities that are expected to come with it have yet to happen. As more material recovery facilities open and manufacturers start to accommodate recyclable materials, the communities' associated costs have risen.

As community services become more expensive, local governments are confronted with voter disdain for higher taxes. Public officials want to see greater results from recycling, since its costs have often outpaced crime prevention, education, child care, infrastructure and welfare costs. As a result, recycling professionals face difficult choices about expanding or even maintaining current recycling efforts. As state and federal financial support decreases, recycling programs must be efficient and, to some extent, selfsustaining.

At first, recycling professionals believed that if a system worked in one community, it would work just as well in another. Many inefficiencies faced today can be traced back to early decisions based on assessments of other locations.

There is growing concern that many recycling decisions have been driven by noneconomic influences and strict interpretation of environmental impacts. High expectations have led to disappointment in communities that once believed recycling would take the place of the local landfill or waste-to-energy facility. The National Recycling Coalition, Washington, D.C., has reported that, after nearly a decade of public attention focused on recycling, the total elimination of recyclable materials from the waste stream destined for disposal is far from complete. There are limits on what current recycling methods can achieve (see chart).

Changing markets and federal, state and local policies have done little to secure the long-term future of recycling. For example, recycling professionals soon will face the reauthorization of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which may mandate recycling rates, minimum recycled content, advance disposal fees (such as deposits), eco-taxes (artificial fees that discourage purchasing specific materials or products) and/or manufacturer take-back programs. They also must be familiar with re-emerging regulations that address worker health and keep up with changes in mandatory recycling goals that will shift the ground rules for recycling.

Preparing For A Career Many of today's recycling and solid waste managers received only "on-the-job" training. Some of the most successful programs are guided by people with little formal experience.

Still, there are many ways to prepare for a career in recycling. Lanier Hickman of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., advises that undergraduates develop a background in mechanical or environmental engineering. Otherwise, emphasize the sciences, particularly chemistry, biology and microbiology. Information technologies such as computer science also are helpful. Given the importance of the public sector's role in most programs, government or public administration and political science courses are important.

Graduate-level training in solid waste management is becoming more widely available at institutions like the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University and the Rochester Institute of Technology. These academic programs provide a broad focus on solid waste technology, systems and practices. Professional associations now offer certification programs for individuals switching among related industries.

To make the right decisions, recycling and solid waste professionals need constant training to help them:

* Gain public or employee support and participation;

* Yield materials that meet market specifications without unreasonable investment;

* Minimize collection costs; and

* Make use of efficient, reliable processing approaches.

Several potential employment opportunities exist for properly trained and experienced individuals, including regulatory, program implementation, consulting, equipment supply, service provision, commercial/ industrial support and professional association support.

The regulatory path usually involves work at state environmental agencies. Developing state policy and environmental regulations requires a knowledge of public administration and environmental sciences. Regulators with a working knowledge of economics, technology and materials marketing are in demand on a local level.

Consulting services, generally offered through specialty engineering or planning firms, require a technological, economic and/or regulatory background. Consultants help with program planning and evaluation; collection or processing technology selection and testing; economic analysis; financing; facility design and permitting; construction monitoring; and system procurement.

Equipment suppliers, whose employees design material handling equipment and help sell their products, generally look for engineering backgrounds.

Solid waste management companies that provide recyclables and solid waste collection, processing, marketing and disposal employ large support and sales staffs. A few companies have expanded globally to develop recycling programs. Service providers seek employees with materials marketing experience, project accounting skills and operations management.

Recycling market sources such as paper companies and packaging manufacturers need professionals to direct product-specific programs. They look for experience in marketing recyclables and the ability to organize in-house programs for collection, consolidation and processing recyclable materials.

Professional associations require backgrounds in recycling and solid waste management. Government advocates, equipment or service providers and environmental lobbying groups look for specific knowledge of the industry's elements.

Each recycling program is based on assessing recyclable and waste availability, economics, equipment and facilty design, but public perception, political winds and regulatory ramifications often become a program's driving force.

The ability to understand and anticipate the gray areas of the field is best acquired through hands-on experience in a public setting. Combining that understanding with factual knowledge will help you best suit the needs of the community or business funding the program.