Dispelling the myth of environmental engineers being ‘rubbish management specialists’

Environmental engineering students from Curtin University Malaysia inside Doppler radome at a radar station to learn about the state-of-the-art technology used in weather forecasting

By Dr. Tan Yee Yong

In the early 1900s, Malaysia grappled with rudimentary sanitation systems, relying on pit latrines for waste disposal. Labourers were hired to clean the pits regularly to prevent human waste overflow, and this kind of work posed serious health risks, not to mention living on low wages, and loss of dignity.

Today, sewage management has become an important industry, reflecting a high degree of environmental awareness and economic importance. Modern sewage treatment and associated environmental practices represent a multi-billion-ringgit sector, as noted in the Compendium of Environment Statistics Malaysia 2022.

However, despite its importance and economic value, there is a lingering misconception that a career in such an industry is ‘dirty’ work, focusing solely on ‘rubbish’ and ‘wastewater’ management. Therefore, it is necessary to dispel this rumour by exploring the invaluable contributions of environmental engineers to society, and show that they are far from being ‘rubbish management specialists’.

Environmental engineers are problem-solvers who enhance environmental quality and drive economic growth through innovative waste management solutions. The Board of Engineers Malaysia defines environmental engineers as engineers who leverage engineering principles, alongside chemical, biological, and physical knowledge, to tackle environmental challenges, and safeguard the quality of air, water, and soil. Moreover, their expertise in waste management, pollution control, resource conservation, and public health protection contributes significantly to the nation’s economic landscape.

However, despite its significance, the environmental economy remains underappreciated, as evidenced by a scarcity of qualified professionals. With only twenty registered professional environmental engineers in Malaysia and a mere four institutions offering undergraduate degrees in Environmental Engineering, talent development is vital to sustain the nation’s environmental economy.

While civil and chemical engineers may possess technical skills in solving environmental problems, they lack the specialised knowledge and interdisciplinary perspective to deliver a comprehensive solution to overcome environmental challenges. As a result, environmental issues may be addressed primarily from a technical or engineering perspective, while important ecological, social, and regulatory factors could be omitted. This is evidenced by the increasing water scarcity issues, inadequate waste management, and river pollution in Malaysia.

Plastic waste and plant debris piled up along the Miri River during low tide
(Photo taken when the author was collecting water sample for river remediation research)

Therefore, environmental engineering should stand as a distinct discipline rather than a sub-discipline of civil or chemical engineering, addressing contemporary environmental concerns such as carbon management, circular economy practices, and emerging pollutants control. It is essential that it extend beyond technical expertise to include broader social and economic impacts.

As the public and private sectors and communities increasingly realise the urgency of solving environmental problems, the demand for environmental engineers has grown to some extent. Environmental engineers are employed in diverse sectors, including government agencies, consulting firms, research institutions, and non-profit organisations, where they play an important role in developing and implementing policies, programmes, and technologies to promote environmental sustainability and resilience.

The introduction of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards amplifies the need for environmental compliance, requiring companies to prioritise sustainability. This has led to a greater demand for environmental engineers with companies establishing dedicated environmental departments to navigate environmental issues and assess operational impacts.

According to the Compendium of Environment Statistics Malaysia 2022, the gross outcomes of the water supply, waste and wastewater management, and environmental remediation activities in the country reached a value of RM16.7 billion and created more than fifty thousand job opportunities.

Given the dynamics of the rapidly-evolving environmental economy, environmental engineering professionals must constantly acquire new skills to address emerging challenges and drive innovation. Beyond expertise in fundamental engineering knowledge and principles of water and wastewater treatment, air pollution control, and solid waste management, proficiency in data analytics, machine learning, and other advanced technologies is becoming critical for analysing complex environmental data, simulating environmental trends, and optimising resource management strategies.

In addition, a deep understanding of circular economy principles and sustainable design practices are essential for developing innovative solutions that minimise waste generation and maximise resource efficiency. Environmental engineers also need strong communication and interdisciplinary collaboration skills to engage with stakeholders, direct complex regulatory frameworks, and foster partnerships to initiate sustainable development goals.

Consequently, environmental engineering courses must undergo regular review to incorporate emerging engineering topics and future-focused areas. At Curtin University Malaysia, the latest curriculum of the environmental engineering programme ensures that graduates are equipped with the requisite knowledge to address emerging environmental challenges of the next decade, including green engineering practices, circular economic principles, carbon management, data analytics, and artificial intelligence.

As the field continues to evolve, the curriculum also focuses on essential workplace skills, including adaptability, creativity, and a commitment to lifelong learning, enabling graduates to be leaders in environmental innovation and contribute to a more sustainable future for the generations to come.

In conclusion, environmental engineering is a professional degree that is far from being a ‘rubbish management specialist’. The misconceptions and oversimplifications of this profession need to be debunked, and the invaluable contribution of environmental engineering to society needs to be given due recognition. Environmental engineering has transcended the conventional scope and become a key profession that drives sustainable development.

As Malaysia steers its economy towards environmental sustainability, the role of environmental engineers is becoming increasingly imperative, and portends a future where environmental management and economic prosperity combine. A better understanding about environmental engineering will foster a greater appreciation for the field of environmental stewardship and inspire young generations to pursue careers that prioritise a sustainable future.

Dr. Tan Yee Yong is a senior lecturer in the Department of Civil and Construction Engineering at Curtin University Malaysia’s Faculty of Engineering and Science. He is currently the Head of Engineering First Year and was the programme coordinator for Environmental Engineering from 2019 to 2023. He holds a PhD in Civil Engineering, specialising in modelling of sludge management, and a Bachelor’s degree with Honours in Civil and Construction Engineering from Curtin University Malaysia. Dr. Tan can be contacted by email at tan.yee.yong@curtin.edu.my.