Working in the Environmental Services Industry: A China Experience

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About a year ago, I’d had a particularly stressful week and had travelled back to Beijing to just get away from the job and unwind.  I was having a beer in the Sanlitun area of Beijing, a popular local night-spot for both Chinese and expats.  Enjoying my beer, I struck up a conversation with some foreign students and English teachers, each of them hoping to someday find a long-term career in China.  They asked me about my experiences in China and asked for any career advice I could give.  Which I was happy to do.  China had been good to me and many people had helped me along the way.  I’m always happy to help others looking to take a similar path.

The conversation eventually turned to environmental services, as that is the industry in which I currently work.  While they didn’t have any particular interest in going into “environmental services” they did have questions which I had never thought about.  Primarily, what is it like to work in environmental services?  I’d never really given it much thought, to be honest.  To me, it was simply like any other business or industry I had worked in. 

But it was an interesting question.  What is it like to work for a company in environmental services?

I’ll tell you what it isn’t.

Their questions seemed to indicate that environmental services companies are somewhat “hippie” and that perhaps we are like Apple or Google.  Bean-bag chairs, full service coffee bars with full-time baristas, and trampolines for the employees to work off their work stress.  And in case you have the same question, the answer would be…uh, no.  At least not in my area of the industry.  But perhaps good additions to next year’s budget I submit to our US owners.

I can’t speak for all of my colleagues in environmental services, as the industry is quite broad.  The industry encompasses manufactures of iron sewer pipe as well as wind turbines and solar panels.  Engineering companies who design high-tech robots to remotely repair the inside of sewer pipes, to the actual service guys who flush out the sewage.  Biologists gene-splicing ever more productive crops to environmental consultants advising on repairing environmental damage from mining operations.  From lawyers who advise on environmental law to factory workers who build product, each company, each person performing their particular role, in protecting some part of the environment.

The area in which I work is on the heavy industry end of the spectrum, producing sewer trucks for municipalities and environmental protection equipment for mining operations, coal-fired power plants, and steel factories.  It’s not particularly glamorous work and in fact, it’s a quite dirty business.  But it is absolutely critical to protecting the environment and promoting human health in the communities we serve. 

So, what is my daily work life like?  Well, it’s not sitting in bean bag chairs, chatting with the barista at the coffee bar, and jumping on a trampoline to relieve my stress.   Environmental services companies are above all else, companies.  They may perform a noble purpose, but at the end of the day, they are profit-driven and operate as any other business.

I hire and fire employees.  Perform performance reviews of our sales team.  Approve parts orders.  Review production schedules.  Perform business intelligence on what industry we should focus on next.  Send out angry letters to non-paying customers to get paid.  Prepare bid paperwork for the next government contract.  Endless meetings with both staff and potential customers.  Review weekly management reports and month-end financials.  And if any of this sounds familiar, it should.  Environmental services companies operate as any other company in any other industry.

So then, is there any meaningful difference between environmental services and any other business?

My answer would be yes.

While not every day is a “good” day and working in China certainly has its unique daily challenges, the work is personally fulfilling.

I help to bring clean drinking water to children.  I help to flush out the sewage and prevent people from becoming sick.  While coal-fired power plants are not an optimal energy choice (a topic for another article) I help to minimize the impact on local communities where coal energy is used.  In steel factories, I help to keep workers safe as they handle hot, molten iron.  Above all else, the work I do helps to promote human health.

As any manager in any industry will tell you, they have their good days and their bad days, for various reasons.  But at the end of the day, I feel good about what I do.  Doing my part to promote human health and worker safety, and protecting the environment.

And that makes all the difference.  It turns a job into something you feel passionate about, something you are more committed to.  And that makes all the difference in the world.


Scott Garner, CPA, JD, is Vice-President Asia-Pacific for Hi-Vac Corporation (China).


The Asia Environmental Daily