Hazardous Waste Management

Hazardous waste chemists are keenly interested in the environment, detail-oriented, and have the aptitude and flexibility to keep up with evolving government regulations. The ability to work well with a team is also important.

Typical Job Functions

Hazardous materials management chemists work on teams responsible for detecting and identifying chemical pollutants in the air, water, and soil. They make significant contributions toward:

  • Reducing pollution and remediating problems caused by hazardous waste
  • Evaluating and coordinating the storage and handling of hazardous waste
  • Cleaning up contaminated soil or water
  • Other activities that impact the environment

Hazardous waste management chemists use skills often found in analytical chemistry to determine the chemical make-up of an object that is deemed to be hazardous. They work with other scientists (e.g., biologists, toxicologists, and water and soil chemists) to evaluate the material and to dispose of it.

Specific job functions may include:

  • Identifying and tracking materials as they move through the environment
  • Conducting environmental sampling in the field
  • Using advanced mathematics techniques to model the chemical fate of materials, evaluate bioavailability, and predict the success of competing environmental remediation efforts
  • Researching and developing new products that clean up hazardous wastes.

Career Paths

Hazardous waste management is a relatively new field that has evolved as a subset of environmental science. The field has expanded to include investigation of all types of potentially hazardous materials (i.e., not just hazardous waste).

Hazardous materials management professionals are hired by waste management companies, government agencies, chemical companies, and academia. Their role is often to help these companies and agencies comply with new regulations.

  • Chemists in hazardous waste management are bench chemists who work in laboratories to do instrumental analysis of materials. They mathematically model the chemical fate of materials, evaluate bioavailability, and predict the success of competing environmental remediation efforts.
  • Environmental engineers may divide their time between office work/meetings and conducting environmental sampling in the field.
  • Chemists in academia research and develop new products that clean up hazardous wastes. Improvements in equipment used in the field allow them to do more trace analytical work.

There are many opportunities in western states that are becoming centers for hazardous waste disposal and in southern states that have a high number of petrochemical makers.

Getting Started

A bachelor’s or master’s degree in chemistry is required to enter the field of hazardous waste management. Students interested in hazardous waste management careers should attend schools with well-established programs in this field.

Entry-level positions generally require only a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and people typically stay with an entry-level job for one to two years before advancing either within the company or to another firm. The following are also useful for a career in this field:  

  • Strong foundation in analytical, organic, and inorganic chemistry
  • Knowledge of geology and areas of environmental chemistry (e.g., soil or water chemistry, biodegradation)
  • Math ability and computer training

Advanced degrees are less important in hazardous waste management than in the more structured academic world. A doctorate education is often deemed too narrow or focused for the broad base of skills needed in this field.

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