How to Future-Proof Your Solid Waste Career

Guest Editorial

Credit: iStock/turbodesign777

Picture, if you will, the locker room before a hockey game. The players are strapping on updated versions of medieval armor. They intensely prepare for a rousting contest. This careful preparation contributes to their future success. The same is true in planning for a successful career in the solid waste industry. Career success is awarded to participants who have prepared ahead. Preparation is key. Call it “future-proofing” your career.

Economic and regulatory changes buffet everyone in the solid waste industry, like body checks into the boards. Future insights into the trends in the industry and society will prepare you to meet the needs of tomorrow.

Let’s take a look as to why hockey legend, Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One,” was so great. As the story goes, he was encouraged by his father to look ahead to what was to come. Gretzky’s father took him to see his first hockey game. The young Gretzky watched the on-ice action with fascination when his father commented, “Why don’t they just skate to where the puck’s going to be?”

Gretzky learned this treasured lesson. Observation of on-ice patterns and forethought to the next play demonstrate the value of looking ahead in hockey, and similarly this lesson is important in the solid waste industry.

Understanding the Big Picture
Predicting the future needs of the solid waste sector involves understanding the bigger issues and challenges that face the world. Climate change, managing carbon outputs, an aging and growing population, the rise of automation including automated driving, and concern about water and other natural resources are contributing future issues. It helps to look at big picture trends such as these to prepare for their impact on the waste industry.

For instance, landfills used to be just that: solid waste being dumped. As time passed, concern grew over protecting groundwater and surface water from pollutants seeping from that solid waste. This issue led siting and location restrictions, design and operations standards. Continued evolution of issues involved the development of complex leachate pumping and treatment systems, in turn leading to development of systems to minimize infiltration and leachate generation. From these changing trends, it’s easy to see why the management of stormwater and leachate control are vital landfill operation skills today. That’s why accessing the future needs of the industry is even more important than ever.

Trends Affect the Future
Examining big-picture trends alerts us to changes in the industry so that you can see where the “puck” will be in the future. The solid waste industry is well on its way to managing carbon output—partly by managing organics and through complex methane-capture, and waste-to-energy networks within existing landfills.

Furthermore, waste in North America is still largely truck-transported, situating the industry squarely in the crosshairs of environmental regulators. If carbon pricing becomes an issue in your part of the world, emissions from trucks will carry a tangible financial cost. There may be more trucks powered by compressed natural gas (some made from landfill gas), possibly all electric in the future. Think about it—in a face-off between fossil fuel technology and electric motors, which way do you think the game will go?

Build Skills Needed to Succeed
Society’s desire to reduce landfilling, and also to manage resources wisely, is putting a premium on skills related to waste minimization and recycling. Anyone working in solid waste today needs a sound understanding of the mechanics of recycling, as well as the economic trends of recycled materials. Consider the social trend of packaging of consumer goods, such as baby food. Easily recycled glass jars have steadily been replaced by shatter-resistant, complexly engineered squeeze tubes, an increased challenge troubling recycling efforts. Industry professionals may need to work more closely with manufacturers to devise easy disassembly for recycling, as we already see in the automotive sector.

Keep Your Education Up-to-Date
A large part of career success involves thinking about how long your education stays relevant. Consider the “half-life” of your technical degree—how long before half of the technical information that you learned in college is out of date? (I’ve got another story about when I started thinking about “half-life” of my engineering degree, but will save that for another time.) It’s inevitable that skills and knowledge progress, added to the speed of change in the industry. (Who foresaw the capture and conversion of landfill gas as vehicle fuel?)

It is important to think how you will keep your technical skills current. Returning to college or technical training courses for the latest updates, or using any of the online education alternatives, enhances your technical base. Attending industry events such as Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) informs you to current trends and action unfolding in this industry’s ­latest issues. The result can be much like a breakaway in hockey—a chance for your career to excel and do the world a good turn at the same time. MSW_bug_web

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