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Each day Americans toss away paper wrappers, banana peels, food packaging, used paper towels, and many other types of waste into their garbage cans. In years past, this trash was collected on a weekly basis and then buried in a landfill. Today, waste management is a major U.S. industry, and it has become a much more sophisticated and complicated one that is concerned with a myriad of environmental issues and government regulations. It is also the largest and fastest-growing part of the environmental industry.
Waste primarily falls into two categories: hazardous and nonhazardous. Both types include a wide variety of materials, but hazardous waste falls under stricter regulations and covers a range of chemical and other wastes. Nonhazardous waste is known as municipal solid waste (MSW), or what is commonly considered garbage, typical household waste. Today's waste management firms are not only concerned with the efficient disposal of waste, but also with reducing the quantity of toxic and hazardous chemicals and materials acquired, used, or disposed of. Many companies also manage recycling programs and effective waste prevention.
Few industries are as critical to humankind as waste management, with every person impacted by it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the country's waste industry successfully managed 251 million tons of household and other municipal solid waste in 2012, with the average person throwing away 4.4 pounds of garbage every day.
Although humankind has been managing its waste for centuries, the modern waste management industry that also focuses on reducing waste and recycling is a more recent product. Earliest efforts to deal with residents' waste in cities date back to 500 B.C., when the first known dump was created outside of Athens. The Industrial Revolution, which began in England in the 1700s and expanded to the United States, created more serious waste management issues when factories sprang up, urban populations exploded, and wastes began to grow out of control. Early efforts used incinerators to burn waste, and by the early 1900s, there were about 300 incinerators in North America. By the mid-20th century, lawmakers enacted the first government regulations in an attempt to address increasing concerns about the environmental impact of unregulated waste management practices. The first waste-management legislation was passed in 1965. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970 to implement waste handling and other environmental regulations. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1970 and its 1976 amendments defined different types of wastes as well as minimum actions for handling them. Lawmakers also described what types of wastes industry could discharge, what types of materials they could no longer use, how the wastes had to be disposed of, and rules about municipal landfill and incinerators.
The modern waste management industry can be divided several different ways. Some workers work with hazardous waste while others work with nonhazardous waste; they may be employed in the private sector or the public sector. Careers in the industry can have several focuses, from air, water, or soil concerns to waste produced by industries or government agency regulation of these industries. There are many types of jobs available for people interested in waste management. Some don't require a college degree and workers can spend a lot of time outside. Others will need a college degree or master's degree for technical positions in treating waste and water. Equipment operators are needed in such waste operations as landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and some industries. Technicians take samples and work in labs in all stages of waste treatment and environmental study, while engineers devise ways to improve waste management systems and scientists study effects on the environment and humans.
Employees may work for large private companies, small companies, large manufacturers, or federal, state, or local governments. There are also opportunities with engineering and waste management consulting firms, environmental management firms and for those who wish to work independently as consultants.