Are you passionate about protecting the environment? Then a career in environmental engineering might be your calling.
Read on to find out what environmental engineers do, how the field is linked to sustainability, and how to become one.
What is environmental engineering?
Environmental engineering is a branch of civil engineering primarily concerned with managing the supply of water and mitigating the adverse effects of environmental issues, like pollution. It may also be concerned with, where applicable, improving or restoring the quality of a given environment.
While the term is relatively new, environmental engineering is actually an ancient and venerable branch of engineering. We have been practicing it, in one way or another, almost since the dawn of civilization.
Ever since we began living permanently, or semi-permanently in a given location, people have needed to develop ways of finding clean water and disposing of waste and sewage effectively and hygienically. As early settlements grew into sprawling cities, and as large-scale agriculture and manufacturing developed, people were forced to develop engineering strategies to deal with poor water quality and pollution -- among other problems.
The Romans were particularly adept at this kind of engineering, with many Roman sewage systems, like the "Cloaca Maxima" ("The Greatest Sewer") in Rome, Italy, still working today.
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In more modern times, Joseph Bazalgette is often cited as one of the most notable early environmental engineers. He, famously, played a key role in the construction of the first large-scale municipal sanitary sewer system in London in the mid-1900s.
This ambitious construction project was inspired by a series of cholera epidemics in the city, not to mention a persistent stench as a result of raw sewage being dumped directly into the River Thames.
Not only was this particularly unpleasant for the residents of London, but it was also dangerous, as the Thames, at the time, was the city's main source of drinking water.
Historically known as "The Great Stink," the problem became so bad that the British Government of the time actually considered relocating out of the city, although the idea was quickly dropped. This gave the then-Prime Minister, the great Benjamin Disraeli, the justification he needed to ask for 3.5 million pounds to fund a project for improving the city's sewage disposal system.
What do environmental engineers do?
Being specialized civil engineers, environmental engineers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, "make use of the principles of engineering, soil science, biology and chemistry to develop solutions to environmental problems."
Also according to the BLS, some of the key responsibilities of environmental engineers include, but are not limited to:
- Prepare, review, and update environmental investigation reports.
- They can also collaborate with environmental scientists, urban and regional planners, hazardous-waste technicians, other engineers, legal and business experts, and public bodies to address environmental problems and sustainability initiatives.
- Design projects that lead to environmental protection, such as water reclamation facilities or air pollution control systems.
- Obtain, update, and maintain plans, permits, and standard operating procedures.
- Provide technical support for environmental remediation projects and for legal actions.
- Analyze scientific data and do quality-control checks.
- Monitor the progress of environmental improvement programs.
- Inspect industrial and municipal facilities and programs in order to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
- Advise corporations and government agencies about procedures for cleaning up contaminated sites.
To this end, environmental engineers work to prevent things like the release of harmful chemical and biological contaminants into the air, water, and soil. This requires them to have extensive knowledge of the chemical and biological properties of potential contaminants, but also knowledge of the processes that might cause them to be released.
By applying this knowledge, as well as, foundational engineering practices, they are best placed to develop new processes or improve existing ones and to reduce or eliminate the release of pollutants.
Another important role environmental engineers play is in the detection and monitoring of environmental pollutants, like hazardous waste. They also attempt to track and find the likely sources of any discovered environmental contamination.
In some instances, this is a relatively simple endeavor, but for large bodies of water, like lakes or the sea, this can be a very difficult challenge.
Whatever the case, whenever a source is discovered, it is their responsibility to stop or significantly reduce the output of contaminants. While forcing a business to stop operating is a viable option, it is not often preferred due to the socioeconomic impacts such a decision would cause.
For this reason, they usually attempt to work with the business in question to develop methodologies for avoiding and/or reducing the release of pollutants for their activities. If this is not possible, other solutions such as isolation and storage for later safe disposal are implemented.
Some of them also further specialize in the study, monitoring, and mitigation of the effects of acid rain, climate change, automobile emissions, and ozone depletion, to name but a few.
Where do environmental engineers work?
Given the fairly broad remit of environmental engineers, they tend to find employment in both the private or public sector. According to the BLS, in 2019, the largest employers of environmental engineers included:
- Engineering services accounted for around 26% of them.
- 20% found roles in management, scientific, and technical consulting services.
- 13% worked for state government, excluding education and hospitals.
- 7% worked for local government, excluding education and hospitals.
- 6% found employment with the Federal government, excluding postal service.
These roles tended to be in the following working environments:
- Office-based roles tend to include activities when environmental engineers work with other engineers and with urban and regional planners, environmental engineers.
- When working with businesspeople and lawyers, environmental engineers tend to need to attend seminars, presenting information, and answering questions.
- When they are working with hazardous materials removal workers and environmental scientists, environmental engineers work at specific sites outdoors.
The vast majority of environmental engineers work full-time and often work more than 40 hours per week. This is especially true if their roles involve monitoring a project’s progress, ensuring that deadlines are met, and recommending corrective action when needed.
What is the relationship between environmental engineering and sustainability?
Given the main responsibilities of environmental engineers, it is not surprising to find a lot of overlap with associated fields like sustainable development.
The latter, according to sources like Carnegie Mellon University, "addresses the ability of societies to maintain and improve quality of life while preserving both the quality and availability of its natural resources."
This is where environmental engineers are already well-placed to greatly improve any initiatives for promoting sustainable activities in the private and public sectors.
For example, they have critical skills and knowledge to help promote excellent environmental stewardship with regards to issues like:
- Air and water quality engineering, science, and modeling.
- Environmental nanotechnology.
- Environment-energy studies (including bioenergy, carbon capture and sequestration, and shale gas).
- Environmental sensing.
- Green design and construction.
- Industrial ecology.
- Life cycle assessment.
- Remediation risk assessment.
- Sustainable engineering.
- Climate change.
While sustainability professionals technically fall under the umbrella of environmental engineers, they do tend to focus more on a product's entire life cycle with regards to its impacts on the environment.
Taking a "cradle-to-grave" appraisal of the creation of a product, they look to find ways to improve the sustainability of their production, and safe reuse, recycling, or disposal of it at the end of its life.
In this regard, most environmental engineering roles are more concerned with the bigger picture issues with regard to protecting the environment. They will look at the main sources of any contaminant in the environment, track it, monitor it, and look for ways to eliminate or reduce its release.
Sustainability engineers and technicians, on the other hand, are more focussed on a single product's limited impact on the environment throughout its lifecycle. Both approaches are interconnected and related and help, either directly or indirectly, to improve the long-term resource use feasibility of them.
By doing so, these professions strive to limit human's impact on our planet and help ensure future generations can inherit a habitable world for decades, centuries, and millennia to come.
So, if this article has piqued your interest in exploring a career in this arena, you can read more about how to become one here. Good luck.