Pollution Prevention and Environmental Cleanup Careers & Salary Outlook

What is a Pollution Prevention and Environmental Cleanup Specialist?

Pollution Prevention and Environmental Cleanup professionals are engaged in careers that attempt to help communities best manage their pollution issues. To do this, they consult with businesses and government agencies to help them find ways to decrease their overall impact on the environment. For instance, the Post Office could use more hybrid or alternative energy vehicles in their fleet or factories could harness their steam emissions and exploit a clean energy source.

As our society has realized its environmental impact, careers such as Pollution Prevention and Environmental Cleanup have proliferated. Cities and states see that they can save money over the long-term by addressing their pollution issues sooner rather than later. Thus, if you feel the calling to help clean the environment for present and future generations, then it's time to start building that career.

Green Career Paths


Steps to Take to Achieve This Career


The first step to become a pollution prevention and remediation professional is to decide that this is your calling. There are many jobs in this sector, but if you have a true passion for the environment, you’re sure to go farther than someone who’s only looking for a paycheck. From there, the real work begins.

You will want to first earn a degree that will launch your career. As you work towards your diploma, you can put in hours volunteering on environmental cleanups or taking part in environmental activism. Once you graduate, you can seek out your first job.

  • Step 1: Find Your Passion

  • Step 2: Get Active

  • Step 3: Bachelor's Degree

  • Step 4: Master's Degree

Step 1: Find Your passion

Pollution prevention and environmental cleanup is more than a career, it's a calling. And it's very important to be fully dedicated to the mission at hand. It's also important to understand the literal global scope your work entails. If you remediate oil-soaked soil in North Dakota, there is still much work to do throughout various cities, states, and nations. To determine if this is your calling, assess your feelings towards the environment. You can also evaluate how many environmental stories you read in a week. It's also helpful to have a deep interest in Biology and Ecology if you want to have the most successful career possible.

Step 2: Get Active

Once you have decided that your true passion is in environmental services, you can start working toward your long-term goal, a clean environment. There are sure to be groups in your area that would love to have you volunteer to help clean up a local forest, beach, or waterway. When you donate your time and energy to such efforts you do more than a good deed. As you increase your engagement with these groups, you can learn a lot about how to best conduct a cleanup, how to organize a group of people to maximize their efforts, and the best practices for handling certain pollutants.

If you volunteer in a more political fashion, you will learn a lot about communicating your message to public officials and average citizens. If you volunteer to support a particular issue, you might be asked to work a phone bank and reach out to individuals. This will help you see how people feel about environmental issues and help you best convey your feelings and positions.

Step 3: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Once you have determined that you have a passion for environmental issues, you can begin a bachelor’s degree with full confidence that you are building the future you want. You will want to find a degree program that suits your goals. Environmental studies is a great major to have but you could also consider a degree in political science, biology, or environmental science.

You can also pursue a career in pollution prevention and environmental cleanup with a degree in engineering or architecture. After all, engineers and architects are needed to design and build structures for a sustainable future. If you pursue one of these career paths, you can work on projects that integrate sustainable energy and interact with nature in a harmonious fashion.

Step 4: Earn a Master’s Degree

After you have earned your bachelor’s degree and have worked in the field for a few years, you should consider also earning a master’s degree. There are specific degrees or concentrations that focus on pollution prevention explicitly, but you might also support your career with a degree such as an MBA, Environmental Science, Public Policy, or a specific area of the Biological Sciences.

When you pursue your master’s degree, you will be asserting that you have specific goals for your career and so you will focus your efforts toward those. For instance, if you pursue a master’s degree in Oceanography, you can delve into what it takes to remediate polluted waters and then maintain a sustainable ocean ecosystems. On the other hand, you could use your master’s degree to move into a managerial or even policy-focused position.

With an MBA, or even a dual MBA you pair with a second degree that focuses on your core passion, you can help manage non-profit organizations or governmental agencies. If you are interested in a specific position, be sure that your MBA degree program includes non-profits or issues specific to governmental management.

What Can You Do in Pollution Prevention and Environmental Cleanup?


Once you complete your degrees and land your first job, you can find yourself in a range of settings. That is because pollution prevention and environmental cleanup encompasses many different types of professionals. For instance, you could work in a lab that studies air pollution. Part of your work could involve collecting data or samples from the affected area and then assessing that evidence in the lab. Sometimes, laboratory professionals are hard at work devising sustainable technologies that can either prevent pollution or remediate areas that have been negatively impacted. This might involve some sort of mechanical device but it could also be a biological solution. For instance, mycologists in the Pacific Northwest discovered that some mushrooms are excellent at oil spill remediation.

On the other hand, you could work on the policy issues surrounding pollution. You will need to have a strong background in science so that you can make the best use of laboratory findings, but your daily duties will mostly be conducted at a desk with a computer. You might also take meetings with political or industry leaders to try and negotiate pollution practices that are optimal for everyone.

Skills to Acquire


Since there are numerous sorts of professionals that are required to prevent and remediate pollution, there are also many skills involved. The field requires lab skills, communication skills, powers of analysis, and powers of persuasion. You will need to be a leader at times, and it may even be necessary to have accounting skills. Here is a brief list of skills needed to address the pollution problem. You won't need them all, depending on what position you’re drawn to.

  • Communication: Nearly every niche job within the field will require excellent communication skills. This can be simple interpersonal communication, but you may also need to write long reports or create multimedia presentations.
  • Analysis: If you are in the lab, this will be absolutely imperative. You must be able to draw strong, supported conclusions based on the evidence you have. If you are in a policy or political position you will need to analyze our opposition's positions so that you can counter their arguments. You should also be able to read studies or other reports and determine what they mean for your specific piece of the environment.
  • Administration: As you move up the ladder, you will need to have strong administrative skills. You might be a laboratory manager and need to ensure that the workspace is well-run and organized. On the other hand, you might oversee a department within the federal, state, or city government.

Alternative Paths


There are many ways to enter the field of pollution prevention and environmental cleanup. The traditional routes simply aren't for everyone. Furthermore, some of us are so driven by passion for the environment that we tend to bypass the default pathways to success. For instance, you could enter the field as a volunteer at local cleanups. If you are able, you might spend enough time at these cleanups to end up being hired by the activist organization. Your work as an organizer can then morph into areas such as fundraising and even authoring white papers on pollution and its impacts.

You might decide to impact public policy from a position of political power. You don't need any specific degree to be elected to public office, so if you can gather support for your campaign, you could land a job in politics. Though many start with a seat on their city council, you could pursue something at the state level, or even run for a seat in the US Congress. Your passion for the environment can be the centerpiece of your campaign and, these days, that has the potential to take you far.

If you are more science-minded, you can work with on university research projects that engage your passion for the environment. If you are driven to the scientific aspects of environmental cleanups, you will need to earn some sort of degree if you want to advance. However, you can work as a laboratory technician or assistant with a two-year associate degree.

Career & Salary


Where Might You Work?


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When you make a career out of environmental protection, you can find yourself working any number of settings. If you are a scientist, you could spend lots of time in the field, living in a tent and collecting data all day. Then, you might spend just as much time, or more, in the lab assessing that data. Others spend a lot of time in offices behind a desk. If you pursue the political and policy aspects of environmental protection, that will likely be your native habitat. You might also spend time taking meetings with government or industry officials.

If you pursue the more scientific path, you will most likely work for a university or governmental agency. There may be jobs in the private sector, too, but those are likely to be rarer. Policy experts can work in non-profit think tanks, for activist organizations, or with the government. Some policy experts also work within the industry as lobbyists.

Once you establish yourself as an expert in the field, you can possibly go to work as a consultant. Consultants can help private industry maintain compliance with environmental regulations. Others might consult with environmental attorneys or provide expert testimony in court cases involving issues related to pollution. Such experts will generally have a strict scientific background.

Potential Career Paths


  • Lab Technician:
    This position is mostly concerned with maintaining laboratory equipment, processing samples, and maintaining general cleanliness in the workspace.
  • Public Policy Expert:
    This is an office job that involves studying environmental impact studies, relevant environmental laws, and producing policy position papers.
  • Politician:
    Elected officials craft and pass laws and regulations related to environmental needs. Some tend to favor legislation that increases pollution, but others work as advocates for the climate and long-term sustainability.
  • Environmental Attorney:
    You will need a law degree to pursue this career, but you can also support attorneys as a paralegal with an associates or bachelor’s degree. You will work as an advocate for those negatively impacted by pollution.
  • Environmental Scientist:
    In this position you will conduct studies to determine the impact of pollution or to assess the efficacy of remediation methods. You will probably need a master’s or doctoral degree.
  • Botanist:
    You will study plants and how they relate to the overall issue of pollution. You might discover an optimal way to deploy plants for pollution remediation.
  • Mycologist:
    These scientists focus on fungi, or mushrooms. Already, mycologists are learning how to train fungi to remediate oil spills and some are working with fungi that can devour plastic trash as well.
  • Oceanographer:
    Ever wish that you could call the deep blue sea your office? Oceanographers study the ocean and determine how pollution and climate change is disrupting its ecosystems.

Career Outlook


The job market these days is flooded with environmentally conscious jobs. From solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians to environmental policy experts, the demand is growing for green professionals. To determine the demand for pollution prevention and environmental cleanup, we looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics information on Environmental Scientists.

That profession is a key driver in the overall field, and it is growing. The BLS projects 8% growth in the field through 2028. These professionals are also making a healthy salary. In 2018, Environmental Scientists earned a median salary of $71,000. Meanwhile, Environmental Science and Protection Technicians were earning $46,000 with only an associate degree. If you land a doctoral degree and become a Biochemist or Biophysicist, for instance, your earnings could top $93,000.

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Advancing from Here


You can advance your career in this field as far as you would like. Those in public policy can become lobbyists or even run for office themselves and create careers that take them to levels of power and influence they hadn't imagined. If you wish to be a more independent worker, you can become a consultant and put your specific skills, whether strictly scientific or policy-minded, to use for contracted clients.

Ultimately, your advancement as a scientific professional will be largely determined by your education. Your work as an activist, policy expert, or politician can be certainly helped with a law degree or some other master’s degree, including an MBA, but not necessarily. You will have to assess your ideal path and strive to model those who've already mapped similar journeys.