School and college students care passionately about the environment. Less than a month ago, thousands of young people walked out of lessons to protest about the failure of politicians to tackle the escalating ecological crisis.

A LinkedIn study revealed 74 per cent of candidates want a job where they feel that their work matters; and a recent survey by the international school ACS in Surrey showed that young people are now as motivated by a desire to save the planet as they are to make money when it comes to setting up their own businesses.

I work at Cawleys, one of the leading independent waste management businesses in England. We provide waste collection services for schools, college and universities and businesses across the South East.

People often ask me about my job, and what it’s really like to work at the sharp end of ‘cleaning up the Earth.’ With interest in environmental activities and careers at an all-time high, it’s the perfect time to explain the careers and education on offer in our industry.

Waste collection, the fourth emergency service

Waste management is an incredibly challenging, complicated business sector and for this reason offers a wealth of interesting and worthwhile careers. It is also a sector where good companies, like Cawleys, must provide high quality, regular training for its staff if it is to survive and thrive.

Many people working in FE will be unaware that their college or school will have a waste collection bill each month, in addition to rates or other taxes, because businesses can’t use household collection services to dispose of their waste. Institutions with technical departments, such as automotive workshops or science laboratories, will also have to pay for specialist collection of waste streams defined as hazardous such as oil, lab chemicals, cleaners or solvents. The specialist collection is my remit as head of hazardous services at Cawleys.

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Life on the environment front line

From my school days, I knew I wanted to do a job that would involve doing something positive for the environment. I wanted to be an environmental health officer, and did some work experience at my local council to see what it would be like.

I loved it. The waste management sector is a very people-oriented business. I loved the camaraderie of the team, the fact that I was always learning, always busy, and always doing something useful.

My first job was with a commercial waste business, starting out on a traffic desk routing vehicles to collect customer wastes which is where I learned the ropes in the waste industry. I stayed for ten years progressing from an admin role to sales, working up to becoming a depot manager where I first became in charge of my own team to deliver a collection service. It was a demanding job, and I really enjoyed it.

As a manager I was aware of Cawleys and was a customer using the nearby recycling facilities. Early on I got on very well with their representatives who periodically came to see me. When the time came, it was an easy decision to make the move and take up a more challenging and specialist role in Cawleys’s hazardous waste team where I have been for the past 15 years.

Logistics and transportation

The waste industry is at its heart a logistics industry, based around collecting waste and transporting it as efficiently as possible to a place which can take that material, re-process it and give it a second life use.

At Cawleys we have a fleet of over seventy vehicles to collect and transport waste, and our own vehicle workshop to keep the vehicles in top working order. Some of those vehicles are specialist to my department, such as tankers for collecting and transporting bulk liquid wastes. The vehicle workshop offers apprenticeships, we have two people completing them at the moment, and there are excellent career opportunities on the mechanical and automotive repair side of things.

There are of course many roles for drivers and waste operatives too. There’s a national shortage of HGV drivers, and we offer excellent training and other incentives to attract people to these important roles – after all, where we would be without drivers? People are often surprised that we have women drivers, but at Cawleys we have women working across all areas of the business. Kayla is one of our skip lorry drivers, and I know she values the flexible shift patterns as it works around her childcare and gives her the hours and independence she needs.

Training and qualifications in transport

The waste industry is highly regulated, and at Cawleys we have an on-going programme of training and development for staff to ensure we always meet or exceed regulations. For people who like learning and personal development it’s great place to be.

Because I now specialise in hazardous waste - specialist waste streams that you can’t just put in the usual dustbin - I am the company’s appointed Dangerous Goods Safety Advisor (DGSA), something which any business requires when transporting dangerous goods on the road. Having been a DGSA for over 10 years I have a broad experience of Hazardous and difficult waste collections which I’ll go on to later; a few like a dead rhino might surprise you!

I also have a Certificate in Professional Competence (CPC) which was introduced across Europe to improve road safety and maintain standards of driving. Alongside this I also hold a Chartered Institute of Waste Management / Waste Management Industry Training and Advisory (CIWM/ WAMITAB) Operator Competence certification, which demonstrates that we employ technically competent people with the knowledge and skills to comply with the Environmental Permitting Regulations.   There are more qualifications I hold too – so you can see what I mean about training and safety! For example I also hold an Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (IOSH) certificate which are particularly important in my line of work.

Innovation and technology

Nowadays, waste or resource management is an industry with innovation and technology at its heart. We invest in technological solutions for waste rather than sending everything to landfill, so for people with an interest in science or engineering there are also plenty of career opportunities.

For example, at Cawleys we have one of the few ‘dirty’ Materials Recycling Facilities (MRF) in England. This is a multi-million-pound system which takes waste and sorts it into different types of material. It uses many of the principles taught in school so it’s a great place to see science and technology lessons brought to life.   It’s called a ‘dirty’ MRF because it can sort recyclate from a mixed general waste and not just materials which are already clean and dry.

The trommel is the first place the waste goes to when it enters the MRF. It uses centrifugal force to spin and separate out waste by size and weight. It’s so big you could fit a coach inside! As waste passes through the machinery, a range of other science is applied including electro-magnets, gravity, vibration and Titech autosort equipment programmed to pick a certain waste out using intelligent eyes and air jets. Keeping the machinery working is a full-time job and we employ engineers and technicians in this area too.

Second life uses

Collecting and sorting waste – or rather resources as we prefer to call it – is only half of the story. The other half is ensuring that these resources are reprocessed and given second life uses.

We were the first company in the UK to set up a commercial waste collection service for food waste, sending it to anaerobic digestion (AD) rather than landfill, working for Waitrose. We were also the first company to set up a waste collection service for coffee grounds and cups for businesses in England.

Setting up these partnerships, where the resources we collect are transported and distributed to other specialist companies, is another side of our business requiring specialist skills and qualifications.

The number of different roles in our business shows just how many opportunities there are in the waste sector for people who want a career where they are actively involved in environmental management.

Specialist hazardous waste

Hazardous waste management is an especially important but often little known activity among the general public. There are, quite rightly, very strict laws in place to protect our environment and Cawleys’s role in hazardous waste management is to ensure that difficult or challenging waste streams are handled appropriately and safely, according to the law. We also strictly monitor our chosen disposal routes to make sure hazardous waste is treated responsibly and with a clear eye to the future of our environment.

Many of these disposal routes require specialist treatment processes and by default do not include landfills so offer sustainability which is comforting to me. It is very interesting to see the different stages where something hazardous but common, like mineral oil, can be processed, cleaned and made into fuels or made into a new product.

Never a dull day

During my time at Cawleys, I have been called out to help dispose of a whole fishing boat, a dead rhino, a fighter jet and a various radioactives and explosives so no two days are the same when working in hazardous waste!

Each day I draw on an extensive range of skills and experience to identify the best way to deal with different types of hazardous waste. Each may be covered by a different aspect of legislation, and require differing levels of project management to complete to ensure the waste doesn’t cause pollution or a threat to health and safety.

Prior to any work involving hazardous waste, we have to consider different outcomes and analyse dangers we may face and we use risk assessment and safe systems of work to identify what the most appropriate response is. Environmental knowledge, health and safety, waste legislation and management skills are therefore all required.

Promotion and career progression

If you’re bright and hardworking, there are many opportunities for career progression. The best possible example of this is our own MD, Phil Gudgeon. Phil started his working life as a waste operative which means he drove a dustbin lorry and emptied the bins. Now he is running Cawleys, a £34 million business employing 250 staff, and is an inspirational leader for us all.

Phil is a perfect example of how the industry provides excellent training and career opportunities, across a range of fascinating roles. For example, Phil conducted a route analysis of our vehicles, which helped the company reduce emissions and fuel consumption. He ensures our company looks to science and technology to solve local and global environmental challenges.

Formula E and lithium ion vehicle batteries

Being in the waste industry is not always about following strict rules and abiding by legislation that has already been passed. In some cases because a waste is new the rules have to be studied and worked on to make the best decisions for the future. One such example is Lithium-Ion batteries which are used in hybrid and electric vehicles. The batteries while currently new will one day be a waste we will have to deal with and shortly after 2020 there is predicted to be a million electric vehicles (EV) on the road which equates to approximately 100,000 tonnes of Lithium battery waste! Cawleys is at the forefront of preparing for this change and I’ve personally been working at a government level to help steer decision making as they become a new challenge to the industry.

There are so many factors being considered with the rapid uptake of Electric Vehicles including how we will charge them all but the area we have worked on is their sustainability and the application of circular economies to ensure that precious resource is reused and will pave the way for the future success of the technology. Resource such as rare elements that can only found in a few places in the world are recovered in our services and we also repurpose the batteries so they may have a second life and extend their use considerably.

Companies like Cawleys play a vital role in ensuring that new technology and developments have the accompanying environmental support service behind them. This is why waste management is always evolving and consequently interesting to work in especially when we collaborate with new scientific and manufacturing developments.

Engaging with young people

We’re delighted to hear from people who are interested in a career in waste management. Working with local schools and our customers, we offer tours of our MRF where you can see the science and systems at work. We advertise any vacancies on our website and offer a range of apprenticeships and training programmes for staff in different roles.

I would always recommend getting some work experience, as I did, to discover if you really do enjoy the work and to give yourself some stand out qualities in a CV. Now I am an employer, I always look for someone who would be interested in the waste industry and work experience or involvement in anything environmentally positive are examples of evidence that applicants understand our business and really do want to work in the sector.

There are also many industry bodies which represent the industry including the Chartered Institute of Waste Management (CIWM) which offers professional qualifications and training. You can find a wealth of information about careers and opportunities in the sector. In education, there are courses from apprenticeships through to first degrees and masters.

Alan Colledge, Senior Manager at Cawleys Hazardous Services

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