Environmental engineers combine brilliant problem-solving abilities with scientific skills to create technological solutions which protect, restore and preserve the planet

As an environmental engineer you'll be concerned with issues such as climate change, drought, population growth, urbanisation, deforestation and the energy crisis. Using your background in science and engineering, you'll find technology-based solutions to complex problems.

You'll endeavour to provide a healthy environment for the world's population by disposing of waste, providing safe drinking water, controlling environmental hazards, improving recycling and decreasing soil, water and air pollution.

Types of environmental engineering

You may cover specific areas, such as:

  • disposal of waste products such as water and plastics, particularly high-volume industrial waste
  • environmental compliance - ensuring minimal environmental impact from spills or emissions
  • flood risk and drainage
  • infrastructure and development
  • management of pollutants that can harm the natural environment
  • recovery and cleansing of land which has been damaged, for example by mining, landfill or farming
  • water supply and sanitation.

Responsibilities

As an environmental engineer, you'll need to:

  • gather data from a range of sources through site assessments, environmental monitoring and third party reports
  • evaluate the environmental impact of the project, hazard or commercial operation
  • write up and present findings, costings, health and safety plans and recommendations on the containment, clean-up process, remediation, recycling and waste disposal, in order to fix environmental issues
  • create plans to protect and restore the environment by removing contaminants from water, air and land
  • develop site-specific health and safety protocols such as spill contingency plans or methods for loading and transporting raw materials
  • provide advice about preventing future difficulties
  • implement, manage and supervise the day-to-day tasks of construction and remediation schemes
  • communicate with sensitive stakeholders such as local residents in order to minimise the impacts of projects on the community
  • regularly liaise with clients and local authorities relating to planning aspects of projects
  • provide advice to and work alongside other professionals, such as environmental scientists, planners, construction workers, lawyers, and landowners to address environmental problems and promote environmental sustainability
  • be familiar with current environmental regulations and guidance.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for environmental engineers are between £17,000 and £28,000.
  • Experienced engineers can earn between £28,000 and £45,000.
  • Project engineering managers or chartered engineers earn higher salaries, of £40,000 to £60,000 or more.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

As environmental engineering often requires a lot of site work and travel, hours can be irregular. You may be expected to stay away from home overnight, or sometimes for longer, perhaps weeks or even months.

Most environmental engineers work full time and you'll usually be expected to work around 40 hours per week. There may be times where your working hours are longer, in the case of environmental emergencies. Project deadlines could also require you to work extra hours, but these will usually be repaid in lieu or you may receive additional payment.

What to expect

  • You'll be expected to travel to site regularly, which may require early starts or overnight stays.
  • Site work will be carried out regardless of the time of year, or the weather.
  • You may have to overcome difficulties because of legislation, health and safety or other unexpected hurdles. This will add variety to the role but may make it stressful at times.
  • Bringing your expertise from the field to the office is a key part of the role, and you'll be expected to present your ideas, recommendations and costings to clients and other stakeholders.
  • An increasing focus on environmental management globally means that jobs are readily available throughout the UK and abroad.

Qualifications

Although engineering degrees are highly relevant to this area, you do not always need to have studied an engineering subject in order to become an environmental engineer. You may have studied another subject that has relevance, such as a science or an environmental discipline.

It's also possible to move into environmental engineering from other related occupations, such as environmental consultancy or sustainability.

Studying a relevant postgraduate programme, in areas such as environmental monitoring, contaminated land or environmental engineering, may make you more attractive to an employer. However, you can enter this area without a postgraduate qualification through a graduate scheme, which many employers offer in this field.  

Skills

You'll need to be:

  • good at collecting, analysing and manipulating scientific data
  • strong at report writing and interpreting reports written by other people
  • a good communicator, for discussing problems with other professionals
  • able to meet strict project deadlines and work under pressure
  • a great organiser, to manage all the different phases of a project
  • able to work with people from a range of disciplines and to collaborate towards a common goal
  • technically inquisitive, with imaginative problem-solving skills
  • confident to ask questions and challenge the norm.

Work experience

Work experience with an environmental engineering organisation is valuable but any experience in the environmental sector will be welcomed by employers. You could focus on finding environmental volunteering opportunities with charities, wildlife trusts or national parks, which is relatively widespread and easy to find.

Alternatively, you could approach organisations with an interest in environmental impact management, such as engineering consultancies, construction firms, environmental consultancies, waste companies, land remediation organisations, defence companies and airlines.

You could also target organisations that specialise in the particular types of environmental issue you are interested in and approach them for work experience opportunities, vacation placements or a year in industry. Joining an environmental society at university may also be helpful.

Employers

Environmental engineers are employed within the private and public sector and work in companies of all sizes across a range of sectors, including:

  • central government departments and executive agencies like the Environment Agency
  • construction
  • defence
  • energy or utilities
  • engineering
  • environmental consultancy
  • industrial processing
  • land and property development
  • local authorities
  • manufacturing
  • mining.

Many large engineering and construction organisations offer graduate entry schemes. Opportunities also exist in some small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs).

Depending on the employer, you may be known under the alternative title of geo-environmental engineer, safety and environmental engineer, sustainability engineer, civil environmental engineer or public health engineer.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Many organisations offer specialised training once you begin working, which will be linked to the specific area of environmental engineering you have chosen.

Training may include:

  • Climatic environmental testing
  • Phase 1 and Phase 2 Site Investigation reports
  • Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), Passivhaus and other environmental assessment methodologies
  • Creating Environmental Compliance Plans and Construction Environmental Control Plans (CECP).

In order to network with other environmental engineers, and to access resources, you could become a member of the , which represents professionals across the world. It's possible to join as an associate member simply with an interest in environmental engineering.

Once working as an environmental engineer, you could consider starting on the path to chartership, but your options may depend on your degree discipline. If you're an engineering graduate you could investigate professional societies such as The Institution for Civil Engineers (ICE), or if you have a geological degree you could pursue 's chartership, and so on.

Alternatively, the Society for the Environment offers a which would allow you to become a chartered environmentalist. This internationally-recognised qualification is awarded to a wide range of environmental professionals, whose work has a strong focus on sustainability or conservation.

Career prospects

As you gain experience on a wide range of projects, you can take on more responsibility and move onto more complex projects. You may have more freedom to implement your own solutions and create your own designs. Experiencing a range of projects and devising successful solutions can open up opportunities for you to progress.

You may choose to specialise in a particular field of environmental engineering such as land reclamation or pollution control.

Or, you could choose to go down a management route and supervise other engineers or technicians, or manage entire projects. If leadership appeals to you, you could aim for an executive position within an organisation.

With considerable experience you may be able to work in a freelance capacity, offering your technical skills and knowledge to a range of clients, or start up your own environmental engineering consultancy.