As the waste management sector evolves, it is crucial for waste management agencies and companies to pay close attention, follow trends and ensure that they have a well-equipped workforce. When done right, these new strategies are good
for business and the environment.
By Celeste Frye, AICP

Around the globe, more and more industries are making substantial changes to how they operate in order to reduce their environmental impact. This is especially pronounced in the waste management industry, where nearly all elements of the
business directly intersect with the environment.

As waste management agencies and companies seek to make themselves greener, two major trends have emerged: zero waste strategies and more efficient waste collection strategies. This article will cover learning more about each approach, how to equip your workforce to carry them out, your biggest obstacles to doing so and more.

Major Trends
The first of the two strategies, zero waste, aims to drastically reduce the amount of material going into landfills. The goal is not to put that waste somewhere else—it is to avoid creating it in the first place. This approach depends on making products more reusable and making production of those products more efficient, and, thus, shifts the responsibility from the consumer to the manufacturer. In the coming years, manufacturers will feel more pressure to create materials that can be reused, recycled and/or transformed into energy at the end of their life. So, how does this affect waste management professionals? Expect a shift away from traditional landfills and toward facilities that allow for this robust recycling process.

The second plan aims to make more efficient waste collection a reality. It is partly built around the idea of “microhauling”—the process of picking up small amounts of recyclable household waste like food scraps. Expect to see municipal composting programs that were once optional become mandatory and widespread.

Automation is another method to make waste collection more efficient. Rather than relying on low-tech garbage bins and weekly pickup schedules, some cities are introducing automated vacuum collection systems, or “a sewer system for garbage.” Pressurized underground air tubes are used to automatically transport waste offsite as soon as it is deposited in a garbage bin.

New Skill Sets
As these new strategies take hold, workers in the waste management industry will need to learn new skill sets. For example, there is a growing need for skills like data collection and analysis, environmental education and analysis, and zero waste management. As the industry becomes more high-tech, and it becomes possible to gather more industry data, there is a need for people who can engage with that data using computer programming, data visualization and other 21st century skills. Another in-demand skill set is the ability—and credentials—to oversee waste management safety, like OSHA training. Professionals with these skills will not only keep your staff safe, but also ensure your organization can comply with a growing number of local, state and federal policies.

While many of these skill sets may not be prominent in the industry at the moment, it does not mean a new workforce needs to be hired. Indeed, a number of waste management agencies and companies are building programs to train existing employees. These programs can provide major professional opportunities to individuals already working within the industry, and organizations like C40 Cities, UN Habitat and Waste Wise Cities are resources that can help.

Building a successful training program entails a few important elements. A curriculum that is compelling and built by both industry professionals and professional educators will set your program apart. It is equally important to make this curriculum accessible through different avenues, like in-person instruction, remote instruction and asynchronous video modules. Training programs should be multilingual and should offer some sort of credential or reward for completion, whether that be industry certification or tuition reimbursement.

Potential Obstacles
As with any big change, these shifts in waste management come with obstacles. It is crucial that all workforce development initiatives are carefully aligned with employer needs and hiring demands. Otherwise, a mismatch will lead to understaffed agencies or highly trained but unemployed professionals. To avoid this, waste management agencies and companies can also develop apprenticeship programs that
ensure real-world skills are being pursued.

Apprenticeship programs should be built around hands-on learning and provide a chance for new members of the industry to work directly alongside veterans. This will give the apprentices a chance to pick up on-the-job experience, from fixing waste management vehicles to building new infrastructure. Apprenticeship programs should also provide a pipeline to long-term careers in the industry, either through eventual job placement or tuition reimbursement for a relevant degree.

Another potential obstacle is low uptake of these new strategies in lower-income communities, which often do not have the resources to implement high-tech waste management systems and outreach. Turn this into an opportunity by
incentivizing adoption. For example, in Curitiba, Brazil, communities can exchange recyclable goods for fresh food—a program that has helped the city reach its environmental goals.

Pay Close Attention
As the waste management sector evolves, it is crucial for waste management agencies and companies to pay close attention, follow trends and ensure they have a well-equipped workforce. When done right, these new strategies are good for business and the environment. | WA

Celeste Frye, AICP is co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners, LLC, a WBE/DBE/SBE certified planning and consulting firm specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the government, nonprofit and private sectors. For more information, visit