What Is Environmental Engineering?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated February 22, 2021 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated February 22, 2021

Published February 25, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Engineering is the use of technology and science to create equipment, structures and processes. There are many subsets in this field, including environmental engineering. If you have applied science skills and want to protect the environment, you might enjoy a career in this industry.

In this article, we will describe environmental engineering and how to work as an environmental engineer to help you decide if it is the right path for you.

What is environmental engineering?

Environmental engineering is the engineering branch involved with protecting and improving the environment for both the planet and the public's well-being. It involves the technologies, equipment and processes needed to control and clean up pollution and contamination. Environmental engineering efforts include reducing air, water and soil pollution, reversing existing damage, recycling, reducing waste, disposing of waste properly and much more.

Environmental engineering incorporates components of chemistry, biology, geology, geography, microbiology, math, hydrology and ecology to find ways to protect human and environmental health. It is considered a division of civil, chemical and mechanical engineering. Environmental engineering is crucial anywhere people live and depend on having clean water, air and soil as well as a way to safely dispose of garbage and sewage.

Related: Guide: How to Choose a Career

What do environmental engineers do?

Environmental engineers use their knowledge of engineering and science to help solve important environmental problems. Projects they work on include:

  • Air pollution

  • Water pollution

  • Soil contamination

  • Recycling

  • Waste and sewage disposal

  • Public health

  • Clean energy

  • Climate change

  • Sustainability

Job duties

While their job responsibilities vary depending on their experience and specialty, an environmental engineer's duties might include:

  • Creating and reviewing environmental reports

  • Taking air, water and soil samples

  • Getting proper permits and making sure companies follow standard operating procedures

  • Determining the environmental impacts of planned industrial, commercial and residential projects

  • Designing the equipment and processes used for water reclamation, waste management, air pollution control, wastewater treatment and other systems and facilities

  • Modifying existing industrial and agricultural processes to reduce air, water or soil pollution

  • Conducting hazardous waste management studies and finding ways to clean up contaminated areas

  • Detecting pollutants and their sources

  • Assessing the safety, quality and effectiveness of existing equipment

  • Inspecting facilities to make sure they follow environmental regulations

  • Investigating environmental complaints and creating reports on them

  • Overseeing companies' environmental management systems

  • Staying up-to-date on environmental improvement programs, new technologies, new regulations and scientific data

  • Working with government agencies to create new regulations

  • Working with businesses to find ways to reduce their waste and pollution

  • Studying the effects of certain technologies and advancements on the environment

Specializations

Environmental engineers might focus their work on a local, regional, industry-specific or global scale. Local efforts might include designing a town's wastewater treatment system or developing ways to improve an area's sanitation. Global issues include combating climate change, worldwide air and water pollution, ozone depletion and acid rain.

Some environmental engineers choose to focus on one area, such as:

  • Water supply and treatment: These engineers monitor a region's available water and develop ways to store, purify and distribute it for safe human use.

  • Wastewater treatment: These engineers design processes such as clarifier systems, activated sludge systems, biological nitrogen removal systems and disinfection methods to remove pollutants from sewage and reuse wastewater.

  • Air pollution management: These professionals evaluate and reduce emissions from sources such as vehicles and gas stacks. They might also find ways to reduce carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Environmental impact assessment and mitigation: These engineers determine whether a development or construction project will affect an area's water quality, air quality, habitat, wildlife and plants and more. They then find ways to reduce environmental impacts.

Work environment

Environmental engineers typically work full time with some occasional overtime to meet project deadlines. They work in offices when planning projects, getting permits and writing reports and they might travel to meet with lawyers and company managers or to present information and study findings. Environmental engineers might also work on-site at industrial facilities or construction areas when doing inspections or overseeing a company's environmental activities.

These professionals should have good communication skills and work well on a team, as they often work closely with scientists, other engineers, technicians, businesses, government agencies, lawyers and urban and regional planners. Industries environmental engineers most commonly work in include agriculture, government, industry and consulting.

Related: Engineer Cover Letter

How to become an environmental engineer

Most environmental engineers should have at least a bachelor's degree in engineering, basic work experience and professional certification. Here are the steps you can take to become an environmental engineer yourself:

  1. Get a bachelor's degree

  2. Gain experience

  3. Earn a master's degree

  4. Get licensed

  5. Pursue continuing education or specializations

  6. Apply for jobs

1. Get a bachelor's degree

Most environmental engineering jobs require a bachelor's degree from a program certified by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Some programs offer specific environmental engineering degrees. Otherwise, civil or chemical engineering degrees can provide graduates with the information and tools they need to work on environmental projects.

2. Gain experience

While in college, many environmental engineers complete internships to acquire practical experience. Many university programs can help students find engineering internships or part-time jobs during or between school semesters.

3. Earn a master's degree

While not required, some environmental engineers also earn their master's degree in environmental, civil or chemical engineering. Some universities offer five-year engineering programs that allow students to earn both their bachelor's and master's degrees. A master's degree can benefit engineers who want to work in research, teaching or leadership roles, and it might provide more job opportunities.

Related: The New Graduate's Guide to Job Search

4. Get licensed

Environmental engineers who do consulting or provide services to the public must be certified as professional engineers. To earn this certification, you must have the required education and work experience and pass the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam in your state. Some states and local governments might require additional licensing depending on the engineer's type of work.

5. Pursue continuing education or specializations

Environmental engineers need to understand and stay current on technological advances and government regulations in their field. Certified PEs also have to complete a certain number of continuing education hours to stay licensed. For these reasons, many environmental engineers choose to become members of organizations such as the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES) for their professional development opportunities. The AAEES also offers specialization certifications.

6. Apply for jobs

After getting the appropriate education, experience and licenses, environmental engineers can apply for jobs with government agencies, agricultural and industrial companies, consulting firms and more.

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