A common theme for those who start out in the waste industry is that it was never their intention to do so in the first place. This was the case for Amy Alessi who works for InSitu Advisory as an environmental consultant. That doesn’t mean that her Bachelor of Science degree didn’t come in handy when she decided to take a role at the company once she graduated. And it was after working in the industry for 12 months, Alessi decided to apply for her master’s degree in environmental engineering management to expand her horizons in the waste industry. Like any job, the learning curve has been steep.
“It’s a very eye-opening industry; I realised quickly how much I didn’t know about current waste management systems in Australia,” Alessi said. “There is a lot to improve on and there’s a lot of research that needs to be undertaken. But it is rewarding at the end of the day.”
Working in a consultancy has varied and interesting aspects to the job. This includes helping clients with applications for resource recovery facilities, as well as working with the management teams of those companies as they go through the public consultation process. Alessi also liaises with external consultancies and assists with getting the compliance documents that help deliver the project.
She has also been involved in creating concept designs for environmental studies associated with projects. With that application process, she and the team she works with ensure that any environmental impacts are mitigated and managed. Another aspect of the job is to carry out commercial, environmental, and regulatory waste and resource recovery research.
“We did a big study for the Sydney metropolitan area and then also the wider New South Wales region, which was very interesting,” she said. “We looked at all the different MRFs, landfills – any sort of waste and resource recovery – within the Sydney metropolitan area and where all the waste was going. I enjoyed that job.”
Alessi also does community and regulatory consultations and engagement for resource recovery developments. Then there is the bread and butter of most consultancies within the industry such as waste audits and reporting, as well as field work that looks into quality assurance.
Knowledge is something that is growing every month. Preconceptions of what it means to work in the waste industry changed almost immediately after Alessi started at InSitu Advisory.
“I didn’t really know that much when I started out,” she said. “I was your normal, everyday person that would put my waste into the red, green, yellow bins, and off it went. Then when you end up going to a site and you can see all the waste in front of you, you just think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I hope everyone’s doing the right thing’, because that’s what it really comes down to, as well as how a site is managed.
“I’ve seen it from the site point of view and then with what I’m studying now, I’m doing a lot more research in terms of how this waste is being managed.”
What has been an eye-opener for Alessi is the intricacies involved in making sure targets are met when it comes to recycling and reuse of the various waste streams.
“All these different goals that Australia is trying to achieve – such as transitioning to a circular economy – does make you a little bit concerned with how we are going to reach these targets, especially with statistics rising with all our waste streams,” she said.
Alessi acknowledges that there is still a lot to do in the industry. She thinks she will be in the industry for the long run, and has her mind set on a few aspects that she believes need addressing.
“I feel like there’s going to be a lot of work over the next few years in the waste industry,” she said. “I just don’t see how some of these issues are going to be solved in a timely manner. No one’s going to click their fingers and it’s going to be fixed.
“I’m looking forward to broadening my knowledge with regards to waste alternatives, or sustainable waste practices, and green technologies, hence why I’m doing my master’s in Environmental Engineering. I think we need more ways – definitely more options – with regards to dealing with waste.
“The biggest issue is the need for more markets for recycled materials. That’s one of the biggest gaps within the circular economy – we need more options for where this recycled material can go.”
And what is Alessi’s favourite part of the industry? Resource recovery, but more specifically waste-to-energy.
“For all my university projects I get to do, I try and pick any technology that has anything to do with waste-to-energy, because I just want to learn more about that area,” she said.
While Alessi has been in the industry for a short time, already she realises that the government needs to do more, and the industry needs to engage and collaborate.
“There definitely needs to be more funding, more guidance and a bit more support as the responsibility for reaching goals gets funnelled down,” she said. “Each state works differently, but in order to achieve that transition to a circular economy, we need to be working together.”
As mentioned, not many people studying for a degree think about going into the waste industry after graduating. Alessi has found the industry is a difficult subject to talk about with those who don’t work in it. Could it be due for an overhaul in terms of trying to change the perception of what the industry is about?
“It’s going to be a growing industry but it’s hard to talk about it, because it’s not a very popular topic with anyone,” Alessi said. “I feel like there needs to be more marketing within this industry because people do need to become more educated. I would be supportive of anyone who would want to get into it.”
One thing Alessi has found in the short time she has been part of the industry is that it is never boring and there is plenty to do.
“I learned pretty quickly how broad and big the industry is,” she said. “I guess one of the motivators is that you want to make a change as well; you want to see improvement. However, it can be challenging at times.
“A lot of people do work together in order to achieve some really interesting projects that will help with sustainability and circular economy goals. That’s how I see the bigger picture.”
This feature first appeared in Inside Waste.