The earliest examples of environmental engineering date back thousands of years to when people moved away from a nomadic lifestyle and began living in semi-permanent settlements. This change required people to access clean water supplies and dispose of waste including sewage. As settlements grew and large-scale agriculture took hold, people also began to tackle challenges around air quality and soil contamination.
Evidence of environmental engineering can be seen from many different ancient civilisations around the world, including the Indus Valley Civilisation, the Mesopotamian Empire, Mohenjo Daro, Crete, Rome, Egypt and the Orkney Islands in Scotland. These civilisations included aqueducts, sewer systems, drinking water systems, irrigation systems and even public baths.
Despite these earliest examples of environmental engineering, nothing much changed in the field until the middle of the 19th Century, when Joseph Bazalgette was tasked with overseeing the construction of London’s first large-scale municipal sanitary sewer system following a series of cholera epidemics and the ‘great stink’ that was caused by the discharge of raw sewage into the river Thames. The stench was so unbearable that Parliament were forced to evacuate Westminster and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli asked for £3.5 million to improve the city’s sewage system.
Growing concerns over environmental degradation as well as air and water pollution in the middle of the 20th Century led to environmental engineering becoming its own academic discipline. These concerns were accentuated by new technologies such as pesticides like DDT that had detrimental effects on the environment.
The word ‘environmental’ has roots in the 14th Century French word ‘environ,’ which means to encircle or encompass. It was first used to describe the conditions in which a person or thing lives in 1827 and, in 1956, it was first used in an ecological capacity.
‘Engineering,’ meanwhile, originally referred to the construction of military engines like trebuchets, cannons, ballista and catapults. Coming from the 14th Century French word, ‘enginour,’ the meaning changed to also take in public and civil engineering in the 16th Century.
Environmental engineers develop solutions to environmental issues using the principles of engineering, soil science, biology and chemistry. The aim of the profession is to prevent harmful biological and chemical contaminants from being released into the air, soil or water. To achieve this, these professionals need to have a good understanding of the biological and chemical components of potential contaminants as well as knowledge of the agricultural or industrial processes that could lead to their release into the environment. This knowledge allows for processes to be developed or altered to reduce or eliminate the release of these pollutants.
Environmental engineers don’t just prevent pollutants from being released into the environment, they also detect pollutants that have been released and trace them back to the source. This can be a challenge, given the vast areas that they may need to cover and examine. Once located, these engineers work with businesses to avoid or reduce the production and release of pollutants.
Among the areas of interest to environmental engineers are wastewater treatment, air and water pollution control, waste disposal, recycling and public health. Working to reduce the environmental impact of proposed construction sites, these experts also study the impact of technological advances on the environment, whether in urban, rural or recreational areas.
Evaluating of potential hazards and advising on solutions, these engineers also develop regulations and may be called as experts for legal disputes, meaning that they also need to be familiar with applicable laws.
The duties of environmental engineers may include the following:
- Undertaking site assessments
- Carrying out technical audits
- Evaluation of environmental impacts
- Recommending solutions for site clean-ups, reclamation or waste management
- Assessing compliance with environmental regulations
- Forecasting and assessing environmental problems with computer modelling and mathematics
- Delivering technical solutions to reduce adverse environmental impacts
- Data management and interpretation
- Maintaining and managing plans, permits, legalities and standard operating procedures
The nature of the role means that environmental engineers work in a range of different settings depending on whether they are employed to work in agriculture, industry, for a government agency or as consultants.
Much of the work is done from offices where projects can be planned and reports written, although there may be the need to visit sites to assess the impact of construction or other works. Environmental engineers may also need to visit clients as part of their duties.
The role can be a local or a globally-focussed one, meaning that there may be the opportunity for international travel depending on the exact nature of the job.
Environmental engineers can work in a range of different applications and areas, including:
1. Air Pollution
Working to reduce air pollution, environmental engineers evaluate the concentration of pollutants and the impact on air quality from vehicles emissions, industry and more.
2. Environmental Impact Assessments
In this field, engineers apply principles from science and engineering to assess any adverse effects for air quality, agriculture, habitats, flora and fauna, water quality and more. Where adverse impacts are expected, mitigating measures are developed and deployed.
3. Water Supply and Treatment
Environmental engineers assess the movement of water for a range of needs as well as the systems to store and treat water for a range of applications. This includes treating water to prevent the risk of infectious and other illnesses as well as creating a palatable flavour for consumers. These engineers ensure water distribution has the correct flow rates and pressure for a range of uses, from domestic to irrigation and fire-fighting.
4. Wastewater Treatment
This important aspect of environmental engineering ensures that impurities are removed from water. This includes a primary clarifier, a secondary treatment system, a tertiary biological nitrogen removal system and a final disinfection process before discharge into a surface stream or ocean.
Most roles in environmental engineering require a bachelor’s degree in engineering as a minimum requirement, although some roles or employers will also require you to have certification as a professional engineer and other, more senior positions, may want a master’s degree too.
Rather than offering a full degree in environmental engineering, many universities deliver their environmental engineering programmes through either the department of civil engineering or chemical engineering, while subdivisions can include natural resource or agricultural engineering.
Other options include mechanical engineering courses that are aimed at the design of machines and systems for environmental applications, as well as environmental technology courses that are focussed on the creation of devices to monitor, measure, model and control environmental impacts.
The exact requirements for entering environmental engineering differ according to location but, generally speaking, the routes are either to take a degree course or to enrol on an apprenticeship programme. In some instances it is possible to learn on-the-job or transfer from a related occupation like environmental sustainability or consultancy.
1. University Degree / Graduate Training
This common route into the profession involves studying an undergraduate degree in a relevant subject, such as civil engineering, chemical engineering, environmental engineering, marine engineering, mechanical engineering, or process engineering. This can be followed by postgraduate studies to make yourself more attractive to potential employers. In the UK, a graduate course will generally require you to have three A-levels including maths and physics, while you will need to have completed an undergraduate degree before moving to postgraduate studies.
You can enter this profession by seeking an apprenticeship with a local authority or environmental company. In the UK, this would generally require you to have 4-5 GCSEs at grades 9-4 (A*-C) to enter a degree apprenticeship course. Apprenticeships are open to anyone over 16 years of age and will see you split your time between on-the-job learning and study at college or with a training provider.
Some employers or jurisdictions will require you to have certification from a regulatory body in order to provide services to clients. Even if this is not the case, it is a good idea to seek certification as this shows that you have the required education, knowledge and experience for the role.
Certification also includes continuous professional development, which allows you to keep up-to-date with the latest advances in the field.
The salary for an environmental engineer differs according to the level of experience, your location and your employer. Regardless of where you work, the expected salary for this profession rises as you gain more experience. The working hours will also differ according to employer.
According to geoconstruct.org, the expected salary bands (collated from multiple sources) for an environmental engineer are as follows:
- £17,000 - £30,000 for newly trained engineers
- £30,000 - £55,000 for trained engineers with some experience
- £55,000 - £90,000+ for senior, chartered or master engineers
Aside from the technical education and certification required for environmental engineering, these professionals will also benefit from being:
Learning new technical skills and information to progress your career
Able to collect and analyse scientific information
3. Good Communicator
Able to work with other professionals (including fellow engineers) as well as able to produce reports
Engineering requires an organised mindset in order to complete your work and meet deadlines
5. Able to work under pressure
An ability to work to strict guidelines while completing the tasks required on time
Environmental engineering allows you to use your knowledge, skills and experience to directly benefit humankind and the world around us. This includes protecting the natural environment and improving the efficient use of natural resources such as water.
This career also has good employment prospects, with bodies such as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting average employment growth of 3.7 percent between now and 2030, which greater than that for many other occupations.
Environmental engineers play a role in protecting the environment by reducing waste and pollution in the air, land and in water. Helping to optimise the use of natural resources and maximising the use of existing materials, these engineers design processes and technologies to help control pollution and clean up any contamination.
Is Environmental Engineering Hard?
Environmental engineering is not the easiest of courses to study, but it is generally seen as easier than many other fields of engineering as there is less of a focus on advanced physics and mathematics.
Is Environmental Engineering a Good Career?
Environmental engineering is a good career to enter, with predicted job growth (according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics) of 3.7% between 2020 and 2030. This would lead to the creation of around 3,500 new jobs each year on average. In addition, the career offers the benefit of using your knowledge and experience to directly prevent, control or remediate environmental hazards.
Is Environmental Engineering in Demand?
Environmental engineers are in demand, with projections stating that employment rates are set to grow at about 4% per year between now and 2030.
Is Environmental Engineering Worth It?
Studying and entering a career in environmental engineering is worth it if you are interested in helping to safeguard the future of our planet. This is particularly important now, given the need to prevent and reverse the repercussions from human activity on the environment.
What Job Can I Get With An Environmental Engineering Degree?
An environmental engineering degree can open up a range of potential careers, including consulting civil engineer, environmental engineer / consultant, energy engineer, landscape architect, sustainability consultant and town planning.
Do Environmental Engineers Need A License?
Environmental engineers may require a license depending on where they work. Generally-speaking, it is a good idea to seek certification in this career (see above).
Does Environmental Engineering Require Maths?
Although this field of engineering requires the use of advanced maths less than other disciplines, you will still require a decent level of mathematical knowledge. This is often achieved by taking an A-level in maths. Environmental engineers use maths and science to address environmental issues and to study the impact of construction projects on the environment.
Does Environmental Engineering Pay Well?
Environmental engineering provides a fairly well-paid career, although it is lower in pay rates than many other forms of engineering. According to fieldengineer.com, this area of engineering is not one of the top ten best-paid engineering professions.
Does Environmental Engineering Require Biology?
Environmental engineering requires the use of chemistry, physics and biology to address environmental issues. Biology is used to understand microorganisms in the natural environment and their ability to cause infections.
Does Environmental Engineering Require Coding?
Environmental engineering does not require coding as a rule, but it can be a useful skill to have. Understanding programming languages like R or Python can make figures, data visualisation, modelling, statistics and research easier and faster to undertake. Coding can also assist with big data analysis, machine learning, bioinformatics, and more.
How Does Environmental Engineering Help The World?
Environmental engineering helps the world by helping to guard against pollution, including cleaning up the environment, treating water, and safely disposing of waste. Managing the effects of pollution and solid waste on living organisms and the environment, including hazardous waste management, environmental engineers work with other experts and scientists to develop innovative ways to minimise and control damage caused by pollutants, contaminants and the improper disposal of waste.
How Do Environmental Engineers Deal With Pollution?
Environmental engineers design technologies and processes to control pollution and clean up any contamination that may occur. For example, in the case of air pollution, they analyse the life cycle and processes for manufacturing plants and other facilities to identify and reduce emissions.