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Wanna become environmental engineer?

education Updated: Jun 23, 2010 10:06 IST
Rahat Bano

Garbage is gold. A lot of electronic waste, including your cell phone, carries precious metals like platinum and gold. And many tech-savvy professionals have made it their calling to harvest it.

The raw material is ample 700,000 tonnes of electronic waste every year, according to an expert. “From a 40-foot container-load of printed circuit board, chemical engineers can recover about 10 kg of gold,” says S Sampatth, president of Hyderabad-based Samki Teck Resources, which turns plastic and rubber waste, such as empty wafers packets, poly bags, stickers and cello tape, into resources. It converts inorganic waste into energy (diesel oil) through reverse engineering.

“After computer science, waste management will be the future,” declares Sampatth, a civil engineer from IIT Madras. Experts explain how somebody else’s waste can become consumable for others — as compost, biogas, or diesel oil.

“We waste too much of waste,” says Sampatth. “In India, 300 grams of waste is generated per capita per day. That comes to about 40 million tonnes per year.

Of this, about 5 per cent is plastic and rubber. Between 1.2 million to 1.5 million of this plastic and rubber goes to landfills or lies scattered on the streets.” Sampatth reckons that from this 1.2 to 1.5 million tonnes of waste, waste management companies can generate about six lakh tonnes of diesel per year, which can be used to run a truck for six crore km.

That’s just one of the alluring possibilities in India’s mounting landfills.

Companies are tapping into more waste for business. Sampatth says his company is building a full-fledged plant “about which we will make an announcement in about two weeks in Hyderabad.” He adds, “If you set up 500 such units, it will mean about 500 new entrepreneurs, employing about 500-1,000 engineers between them.”

Organic waste is a much bigger business proposition – it constitutes 35 per cent of all garbage generated in India. Water management, construction waste and debris (30 to 40 per cent) and hazardous waste, including bio-medical waste, too, call for professional management.

The country lacks experts in bio-medical waste management, says Mumbai-based Amiya Kumar Sahu, president, National Solid Waste Association of India and convener/coordinator, NSWAI-Environmental Information System or ENVIS, a result of its tie-up with the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests.

“Then there is huge scope for recycling of batteries, tubelights and CFLs, which requires skilled professionals,” says Sampatth. “There is a lot of potential in this field, especially in a developing country,” says Sahu.

A lot of waste management work is being done by private and non-governmental organisations. There has been some move in government set-ups towards professional garbage management. For example, through a public-private partnership, Mysore City Corporation is reportedly planning a unit to convert discarded plastic into crude oil with diesel, kerosene, wax and perfume as by-products.

Once upon a time, this didn’t happen. Before 2000, when Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules came into effect, civic bodies didn’t even keep an inventory of garbage, says Sahu, who wrote the first draft report on the rules submitted in 1997. The 2000 rules laid down compliance criteria and the procedure for managing and handling municipal solid waste in cities and towns. The rules also said civic authorities would “adopt suitable...technologies to make use of wastes so as to minimise (the) burden on (the) landfill.”

Apart from such domestic developments, the international carbon credit market has had a positive spin-off, too. Recently, Municipal Corporation of Delhi earned Rs 5 lakh worth of carbon credits for one of its plants.

Ketan Mehta, owner of Ecosense Labs in Mumbai, says their business picked up about two-three years ago as the carbon credit market became “liquid and fluid”.

Ecosense, involved in R&D of solutions using biotechnology, sells products including those that hasten the conversion of biodegradable waste into compost, without producing methane, a greenhouse gas. “With carbon credits, the profitability and viability of these (waste management) projects has turned around.”

The profit margin changed from eight to 15 per cent to about 12 to 15 per cent, he says.

Surely, there’s some profit in this field.

What's it about?
Environmental engineers and postgraduates in environmental science design sites and processes and do lab-based analysis work, respectively. Students from other disciplines, such as chemical, civil, microbiology and biotechnology, are involved in different aspects of waste management

Clock Work
An average day of an environmental engineer working with a company converting waste into resources:
10 am: Reach office. Ask team about the status of weekly/ biweekly projects. Meeting with my team, work on project proposals, collect details on competitors’ technology
1.30 pm: Lunch
2 pm: Back to work, more of the same thing, talk in or participate in the weekly masti ki paathshala, internal lectures series on topics of professional interest
4 pm: Visit the project or work site
6 pm: Back home
Most of the days, I also work from home searching for new ideas, technologies and information about competitors

The Payoff
About Rs 12,000 to 15,000 or more a month, depending on your aptitude, expertise, and place of employment

Skills
. Willingness to get your hands dirty
. Resourcefulness
. A constructive approach
. An interest in and concern for the environment

How do i get there?
Take up science at the plus-two level. After this, go for a Bachelor’s in environmental, civil, chemical or mechanical engineering, microbiology, or even biotechnology. Admission to these is through competitive exams. You may pursue a Master’s in environmental engineering as well. Else, you could also do a BSc programme and follow it up with a Master’s (MA/MSc) in environmental studies

Institutes & urls
. Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, Bachelor’s in EE
. Indian Institutes of Technology, multiple locations, various programmes
www.jee.iitd.ac.in
. University of Delhi
MA/MSc in environmental studies, MSc in environmental biology
www.du.ac.in

Pros & Cons
.

Huge potential in the waste management sector


.

Technological job


.

Not well-paying initially


.

Stigma attached to working with trash

Municipalities have a large amount of waste to handle

An industry insider talks about the prospects and challenges

M Goutham Reddy has a Master’s degree in environmental engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada. He underwent training in waste management in Australia and environmental monitoring in Sweden. He is currently executive director of Ramky Enviro Engineers Limited, which is part of a Hyderabad-based business group employing about a hundred environmental engineers, postgraduates in environmental science and graduates in science and boasts of clients such as the Tata group and Reliance. Excerpts from an interview:

When and why did Ramky get into waste management?
The basic thinking started in ’93-’94. Finally, the first facility started in 1999-2000. We were into environment consultancy, building effluent treatment plants etc. We decided that we should focus on managing solid waste.

Since 2000, how has your business evolved?
The challenges have been very different. Initially, the challenge was to make people understand that waste has to be managed. We operate on the user-pays principle. But the users — hospitals, industries, municipalities — weren’t convinced. They didn’t want to pay.

Then, there is the NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality. People would say, ‘waste management is important but it should not be done in my town’. You may keep a garbage bin in your apartment but will you let a (community) garbage collection bin kept opposite your house be? The answer is, no. The waste collection point and waste management plant will be close to somebody’s residence. That creates resistance. People would say, ‘It’s not technically-sound. It’s not scientifically sound.’ It’s a perpetual problem we are facing. We are trying to manage it.

How has your business grown?
It has grown very well. In 2000, we started without any revenue. Today, Ramky Enviro Engineers’ revenue is more than Rs 500 crore a year.

What are the prospects in this field?
The opportunities are bright. Every municipality has large amounts of waste to handle.

There is scope for environmental engineers here. They should specialise in solid waste management. At present, the whole curriculum in environmental studies dwells on water, air and ecology. That needs to change to one which caters to (solid) waste management.

Tell us something about your waste management philosophy.
We follow the 3Rs of waste management — reduce use, reuse, and recycle. What can’t be recycled is used for making compost, energy (through refuse-derived fuel) and biogas.

M Goutham Reddy Interviewed by Rahat Bano

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