Garbage may not be glamorous, but as governments and corporations try to figure out how to dispose of trash in an environmentally responsible manner, the need for innovative waste management solutions is on the rise.
Enter waste management consultants, like Spence Davenport. While his early career path led him in a different direction, Spence returned to his early passion for science and the environment, and discovered a rewarding career as a waste management consultant.
Waste management consultants use their strong understanding of biology and chemistry to conduct analysis of, formulate recommendations for, and assist in designing and planning waste management systems. They also need to have strong communication skills — both written and verbal — to communicate with clients, regulatory agencies and contractors.
An in-depth look
Figuring out a better way to take out the trash might just be the “it” job of the future. With cities and companies around the world struggling to figure out where to put garbage, advances in recycling are helping, but waste management remains a massive problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Here’s how Spence Davenport returned to his childhood passion for science and networked his way into a career in waste management.
JMA: Tell me about your background.
SD: I went to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and majored in journalism with a focus on advertising. At some points, I have been very disappointed that I did that; at other points, I think that was a great thing to do. I have always been interested in marketing and it gave me a great background in how to sell and approach things from a personal point of view. But, after I took an internship in New York, I realized that I had no interest in pursuing advertising.
JMA: What did you do next?
SD: I moved to Chicago. A lot of my mentors in Chicago were involved in commercial real estate and they thought that might be a good avenue for me, so I networked my way into a great job. I worked as the leasing manager for the Merchandise Mart for about three years. I was set and could have continued on the path, but I felt like something was missing. At that point, Groupon was taking off and Chicago was a great place for emerging technology — that was really exciting to me.
JMA: How did you transition into that world?
SD: I worked with another mentor and she helped me land a sales role with a tech startup. It was a complete 180 from what I was doing, which was quite literally brick-and–mortar, old-school sales. I moved into the “new-school” version of the marketplace.
Ultimately, I left that job because I wasn’t that interested in the subject matter. I went to the Starter League and decided to learn code. I was 25 and I felt like an old frat boy — obsolete already. But I wanted to learn new skills. After three months, I got a job with Simple Relevance, a startup for email marketing campaigns. I was the first hire and that was really cool.
After a year there, I found that, again, I didn’t really care deeply about the subject matter, so I started career coaching with Jody. When you have a horrible day, you need the passion for the big idea. Jody helped me dig into my core passions.
JMA: What did you decide to do next?
SD: I am really into science and nerdy stuff and I wanted to combine that with my sales and marketing skills. Jody helped me uncover that and put my ideas together. My girlfriend and I were planning a move to LA and I went to Spain for two months first to volunteer. I worked on composting and recycling organic waste — if you gave me a million dollars, I would be a farmer and raise tomatoes and fish. Then I completed a six-week architectural landscape program at Harvard.
JMA: What appealed to you about waste management at the beginning?
SD: If you visited the nine-year-old version of me, I’d be playing in creeks and building aquariums and bringing indigenous species into those environments. I was a total nerd. By comparing myself to others and shifting away from what I loved, I changed. What I am interested in now has retriggered my passion for the environment. I have become more of an environmentalist, but you have to show people the bottom line — which goes back to my marketing and sales skills. It’s a balance and you’re not going to get very far just being a tree-hugger.
JMA: How did you decide on waste management as a career path?
SD: There’s just so much opportunity in trash and LA is a great place to be in this industry. It’s a massive city and trash is a big issue. I worked as a consultant helping companies find ways to save money on trash removal and then I got a full-time position with DC Environmental. We work with commercial property managers to reduce waste expenses and increase recycling.
JMA: What is your role? Have you managed to find a way to use your marketing skills in this new capacity?
SD: I’m a salesperson who reaches out to property managers from a wide range of companies — anywhere from huge organizations to small guys. I’m working with on-site property managers to see where we can reduce their costs, but the real savings come from recycling. If you can work with tenants to increase recycling, you are decreasing the amount of trash in the landfill, and thereby saving space.
JMA: It seems like you have carved out an interesting niche and found a good way to combine a number of your passions and skills.
SD: I wouldn’t be a great salesperson for just any organization; I have to believe in it. I am fascinated by the chemical compounds that make up a lot of the things we consider trash. How can you recycle plastic bottles and clothing? We are going to have to find ways to reuse these materials here in the U.S. and not send them to China. We are so far away from that point that it’s really scary. For example, if China can’t take a specific plastic, it will go to a landfill. Why can’t we figure out how to rematerialize that on-site instead of waiting for China or Vietnam to be ready to buy it?
There is just so much opportunity. If you mine a ton of rock, you get an ounce of copper. If you mine a ton of electronic waste [computers, phones and TVs, for example], you get 10 ounces of copper — so why not mine a landfill? I am only a year into this career, but it’s exciting, fascinating and necessary.
JMA: What made you nervous about this career?
SD: The first hurdle you have to get over is being a garbage man. You have to embrace it as the conversation starter that it is — especially in LA. The second hurdle is that, mostly, there are two kinds of people working in this business. I don’t fit into either category. One type is the old-school, blue collar owner whose granddad immigrated to the U.S. and built a multi-million dollar company over 80 years. A lot of people in the field didn’t get a degree; they are street smart and wary of people like me coming in. On the other hand, you have the people with PhDs in chemistry and engineering; they’re smarter than you. They have accomplished a lot with companies like 3M. So where does the in-between person fit in? For a guy like me who is a jack-of-all-trades with a hunger, there wasn’t a lot of obvious opportunity. But there will be.
JMA: What is your average workday like?
SD: I get up really early and work on prospects. When I am selling to a new client, I try to get to the property after the janitorial team has taken the trash out but before the hauler comes so I can see what the trash is made of. I look at how many bins of trash they have versus how many bins of recycling. During the day, I make calls to property managers. I also do site visits with clients and I might host an electronic waste visit so folks can bring in old TVs and computers and recycle those. We also do dumpster dives and go into LEED-certified buildings and assess what goes where in their trash and advise them on how they can improve their waste management. We let the property manager know so he can submit the information to the U.S. Green Building Council.
JMA: What keeps you excited?
SD: There are not a lot of people saying, “I want to be a garbage man.” I am at the leading edge of this and I think in 10 years, this will be huge. It’s scary, but I like that. I always want to learn and prove that I can be trusted. I am in a good spot.
JMA: What do you love about your career?
SD: This is where the rubber meets the road in proving that sustainability can increase the bottom line. Improving waste management has an immediate return on investment and many sustainability goals don’t. You can replace every light bulb in the warehouse with something more environmentally friendly — and you should — but it’s hard to sell that because you don’t see the ROI for six years. What I do is give people a pass to say to the CEO, “Our waste rates will go down 50% next month.” And they will.
JMA: What has been the most surprising thing about your career?
SD: The most surprising thing is thinking about what will happen next. When you throw stuff away, it gets sorted. When a specific commodity doesn’t have a price that makes it worth taking out of the waste stream, it goes into a landfill. But California and Massachusetts, for example, don’t allow more landfills. So what are you going to do with waste? They are shipping it to states like North Carolina and Utah, but that’s not sustainable.
JMA: What’s the salary range in the career?
SD: In LA and Orange County, the cost of living is high. A base might be $40,000 plus commission, depending on experience. If you’re good, you can make $200,000. It varies based on location and the size of the company.
JMA: What’s the bottom line for someone interested in pursuing a waste management career?
SD: What I have is a weird job; you have to look for it. You have to have an interest and confidence in the path you want to go down. You need to be good with people if you want to go into the account management side, but you also need that genuine interest in trash and recycling.
Update: Since speaking with Spence, he has been highly recruited and now serves as Operations Supervisor for Athens Services’ Resource Recovery division. He currently manages a program that ensures that as many materials as possible are diverted from the landfill through the company’s newest, $60 million materials recovery facility, which is leading the industry in recycling and sustainability. He continues to build on his passion for sustainability and waste that JMA helped uncover.