Me and solid waste go way back. I was probably 6 years old when I wrote the scrawling text in the photo (Translation: I Like the Dump because it’s Messy). I still know exactly what I was referring to— the Skaneateles Transfer Station, the place where residents of my upstate NY hometown brought their waste and recyclables. This was in the mid-90s, so society handled its discarded material a little differently back then, but Skaneateles was (and still appears to be) on top of its game. Multi-stream recyclables were accepted in various walk-in transfer trailers. I remember joining my dad in the containers and helping to toss our waste, paper, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles into the depths of the multi-colored pile of single-stream material piling up. The whole process was strangely fun to me, but at the time, I wanted to be a dancing weatherman when I grew up; I couldn’t have even imagined that I would end up in the waste business down the line.
This was basically weekly father-son bonding time for a while. My fascination with all the garbage must have left a pretty big imprint on my young brain, because I obsessively recycled growing up in Western NC where we had a similar drop-off system, and my high school senior project heavily involved electronics recycling. Only one year into my environmental engineering coursework at NCSU, I announced to one of my classmates that I had decided, of all possible facets of the environmental field (water, wastewater, energy, air pollution etc.), I would specialize in trash. I began to formulate a vision of how I would convert my interest into a living.
As fate would have it, literally the next day I received a mass email from my program’s student services coordinator advertising an open position for an internship at the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) in Raleigh. I eagerly applied, was accepted for the position, and spent the next three years conducting secondary research and learning about both the academic and business side of solid waste. I also worked on projects that inventoried facilities by type and the overall vast extent of the industry, which appeared underestimated by most other accounts. I learned the suitability of the phrase about garbage— “smells like money”— and volunteered at the EREF booth and grand-finale Auction at the annual Waste Expo, which was an incredible experience.
During undergrad, I was also fortunate to be at a university with top-notch solid waste faculty, and an actual 3 credit-hour course on the subject taught by Dr. Morton Barlaz. Balancing a part-time internship with engineering coursework was at times challenging, but I wouldn’t trade the knowledge I gained and people I met during this time period for anything. In addition, throughout college I was a part of a few other organizations that looked towards the future of solid waste and recycling. This robust educational experience nicely segued into my career with SCS. Now I do Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) and solid waste planning projects for a living, and loving every minute of it. Helping localities, organizations, and individuals advance their programs or increase their efficiency brings meaning and value to how I earn my paycheck.
Not everyone can identify such a straight and narrow path leading through their background, both academically and professionally, especially in such a niche field. But I think the unusual nature of my chosen profession is precisely why I was able to continuously build connections and skills in my journey in pursuit of a career, and for that I am thankful. Knowing what you want to do is critical to job success, and so it is essential to not only discover your true passions, but explore them and expand upon them in both directed and creative ways. If one likes the dump precisely because it is messy, that’s perhaps a perspective that defies typical thought processes and allows for an atypical vision of the future.