Pollution prevention internships find lost value, launch new careers

P2 Pathways

Pollution prevention internships find lost value, launch new careers

Finding the time and resources to meet a company’s sustainability goals can present real challenges. Facility managers and engineers often know that improved environmental efficiency could reduce operating costs, but don’t have time to analyze and prioritize which investments will offer the best return. Other times, the problems have been overlooked for so long that they're assumed to be part of the fixed cost of doing business. The missed opportunities to reduce operations costs mean lower profits, which further limit the company’s ability to invest in sustainable strategies.

Getting started in a sustainability career is not so easy either. Although there is a shortage of engineers and environmental managers as the skilled labor force nears retirement, the market is not  wide open  for graduating students in these fields.  Many students are leaving college with high marks and large debts, and finding that companies are downsizing, holding steady or looking for experienced workers. Some of the brightest new talent can’t get a foothold on the sustainability career ladder. 

One possible solution for both these problems are pollution prevention (P2) internship programs, which have been matching students’ need for experience and companies’ sustainability efforts for more than a decade. Growing interest in the P2 internship programs -- and the sheer number of new programs springing up around the U.S. -- attest to their value, which is also documented and reported to a national database. To date, hundreds of students have completed P2 internships, and their accumulated annual savings for businesses now measures in billions of dollars. 

While no two P2 intern programs are exactly alike, there are some similarities. They typically combine the resources of engineering colleges, state technical assistance agencies and businesses. A college or agency generally coordinates these programs, with the Environmental Protection Agency matching funding through competitive grants. 

Intern program coordinators recruit and screen qualified students from various engineering disciplines, and sometimes from environmental studies or business colleges. Interns are instructed in P2 methods and measurements through semester long courses or through short, intensive “boot camp” training. Most programs recruit only high-performing upper-level undergraduates and graduate students. All P2 programs teach that wasted materials, energy or water are preventable byproducts of inefficiency, and challenge students to find ways to eliminate wastes at the source.   

The internships usually consist of full-time on-location work during the summer, with oversight and assistance from program coordinators. The interns have less than three months to complete a quality assurance plan, work with site personnel, collect and analyze data, compare vendors and develop viable recommendations in a final report to the company management. Along the way, interns gain real-world experience dealing with all types of situations and people, as well as coping with the pressure of producing a quality product on deadline.  

Meanwhile, the company gets an intern who knows where to look for problems and how to measure and evaluate the best options for cutting costs. Interns' strong desire to prove their value to the company, along with friendly competition with other interns to identify the biggest savings, produces results. A sampling of P2 intern projects demonstrates the impacts:

  • P2 interns from the University of Nebraska saved a manufacturer over 1.6 million kilowatt-hours of annual electricity by replacing oversized air compressor nozzles.  The payback for the new equipment was 2.5 days.
  • A water balance conducted by an Iowa State University P2 intern for an ethanol plant led to the discovery and repair of leaking valves in a green sand filter, saving over 51 million gallons of water annually. 
  • Two University of Missouri interns tested and compared the performance of citrus-based solvents for three painting lines.  Adding washing stations and a distiller saved the manufacturer $191,000 per year in purchase and disposal costs.
  •  A University of Nebraska intern found $94,700 in annual savings from eliminating 508,800 pounds of solid and hazardous wastes at a manufacturing plant.
  • Upon completing a motor inventory and analysis, a Minnesota P2 intern found that replacing old, inefficient motors would save $180,000 over the life of the motors, with a simple payback of less than 2 years. 
  • A Brown University P2 intern discovered $50,000 in annual overcharges to a company’s sewer bill, resulting in immediate savings with no additional investment. 

Those savings represent many times the $5,000-$7,000 that companies typically pay for a P2 intern, making the program a decidedly good value for the above employers. Meanwhile, students gain valuable experience in managing a project from start to end -- and the ability to list on their resumes a summer job that led to reduced annual operating costs surely helps them stand out among job applicants.  

Though most students return to college in the fall to complete their studies, about a quarter of the interns are hired to stay on with the company. Facility managers and engineers that were P2 interns years ago are now some of the first to hire P2 interns to continue finding improvements.

For more information about P2 internship programs -- including a list of contacts by state -- click here.

Image of smiling man by auremar via Shutterstock.