MS-ERE, Sustainable Waste Management Concentration

A 2007 study by the Goddard Institute of Space Studies and the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University established that the amount of solid wastes generated in a particular nation followed closely the consumption of energy. On this basis, it was estimated that the global generation of wastes will be doubled by the year 2030.

On the average, U.S. citizens generate twice as much municipal solid wastes (MSW; about 1.2 metric tons per capita) as Europeans and Japanese who have nearly the same standard of living. They also use twice as much energy. Therefore, there is a lot of room for waste and energy reduction in the U.S.  However, the goal of "zero waste" is unattainable as has been demonstrated by the most environmentally conscious nations, such as Japan, where every possible effort is made to promote recycling and yet they combust or gasify about 0.35 metric tons per capita.

Recycling is the next best thing to do after waste reduction and in the U.S. it has reached the average of 20% of the MSW.

Composting - both aerobic and anaerobic - is the next step in the hierarchy of waste management. It is practical only for source-separated organics; otherwise, much of the compost product is not usable as a soil conditioner and ends up in landfills. About 9% of the U.S. MSW is composted, most of it being source-separated yard wastes composted in open windrows or used as daily cover in landfills.

Waste-to-Energy: Of the post-recycling/composting wastes of the world's urban population, nearly 200 million tons of MSW are processed in waste-to-energy (WTE) plants that recover the energy content of wastes in the form of electricity or district heating. Of the U.S. MSW, only 7% is treated in 84 WTE plants that process about 30 million tons of MSW and recover 15 million megawatt-hours of electricity.

Landfilling: Most of the global urban MSW, over 800 million tons, is landfilled. Eventually, only inorganic, non-recyclable materials will be landfilled in most nations, as already is the case in Japan, Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands. However, until there is sufficient global WTE capacity, it is necessary for developing nations like China and India to follow the leading example of U.S. in constructing sanitary landfills that prevent liquid effluents from contaminating ground and surface waters and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

Not all landfills are the same. Modern landfills require a large investment and effort to collect landfill gas (LFG) and use it to generate energy, thus reducing GHG impacts and conserve fossil fuels. Therefore, EEC has proposed the Expanded Hierarchy of Waste Management that differentiates between the better and worse types of landfills (see figure below). Uncontrolled landfilling is a major anthropogenic source of methane, the second most important greenhouse gas affecting climate change. The only two options for decreasing LFG emissions, presently corresponding to over 850 million tons of carbon dioxide, are: Replacing landfilling by WTE and increasing LFG capture in the interim period. The U.S. is the world's largest landfiller with about 23% of the total MSW landfilled. However, it is a leader in the capture of landfill methane. The tonnages of MSW generated, recycled/composted, treated by WTE, and landfilled across the U.S. (BioCycle/Columbia National Survey) can be seen  on the Waste Map of Columbia University.

Career Opportunities

Columbia University is the place to prepare you for a career that advances Sustainable Waste Management, anywhere in the world. For past theses of the Sustainable Waste Management program of the Earth and Environmental Engineering Department, please look up EEC Theses.

The M.S. concentration in Sustainable Waste Management is aimed at professionals interested in industry, government or education careers in what has become the most costly sector of urban management. Past graduates have been engaged by engineering firms (e.g., Malcolm Pirnie, GBB, HDR, Covanta Energy, etc.), government and NGOs in the U.S. and abroad (e.g., USACE, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Juniper Consultants, National Commission on Energy Policy, NYCED) or have continued with higher studies. Faculty and students in this concentration are closely associated with the Materials and Energy Recovery Division of  ASME International.


This concentration is aimed at engineers with a minimum background of a B.S. degree in an engineering or equivalent science discipline. Candidates with technical strengths in physics, chemistry, chemical, electrical, or mechanical engineering are preferred. The objective is to gain a better understanding of present-day energy infrastructures, their strength and weaknesses and to scope out future technology developments for a world with seemingly insatiable demands for energy. The master's degree aims at preparing a new generation of engineering professionals who will be involved with the rebuilding of a world energy infrastructure that today is stretched nearly beyond the limits of its capacity.

The program aims at young engineers and active professionals who see their future in the large and international energy development markets. Since the challenges are global in nature, this program addresses energy infrastructure engineering for all types of economies. Problems facing the industrialized countries, the emerging economies and the poor countries of the world differ substantially, and a one-size-fits-all solution is unlikely to work.


Recommended Courses

  • EAEE E4001: Industrial Ecology of Earth Resources
  • EAEE E4004: Physical Processing and Recovery of Solids
  • EAEE E4009: GIS for Resource, Environment, and Infrastructure Management
  • EAEE E4011: Industrial Ecology for Manufacturing
  • EAEE E4160: Solid and Hazardous Wastes
  • EAEE E4150: Air Pollution Prevention and Control
  • EAEE E4210 Thermal Processing of Waste and Biomass
  • EAEE E4560: Particle Technology
  • EAEE E4550: Catalysis for Emission Control 


Elective courses should be selected by the student in consultation with his/her faculty advisor

Mathematical Modeling

  • APMA E4300: Numerical methods
  • EAEE E6210 : Quantitative environmental risk analysis
  • EAEE E4257: Environmental data analysis and modeling

Pollution Prevention of Air and Water

  • EAEE E4003: Introduction to aquatic chemistry
  • EAEE E4160: Solid and hazardous waste management
  • CIEE E4257: Contaminant transport in subsurface systems
  • EAEE E6212: Carbon sequestration
  • EAEE E4302: Carbon Capture
  • EAEE E4301: Carbon Storage
  • EAEE E: Introduction to Carbon Management
  • EAEE E4303: Carbon Measurement and Monitoring

Engineering Sciences

  • EAEE E4252: Introduction to surface and colloid chemistry
  • EAEE E4900: Applied transport and chemical rate phenomena
  • EAEE E4901: Environmental microbiology
  • MECE E4212 Microelectromechanical systems

Resource Management

  • EAEE E4200: Production of inorganic materials
  • EAEE E4361: Economics of Earth resource industries
  • EAEE E4100: Management and development of water systems
  • EAEE E4980: Urban environmental technology and policy

Health impacts

  • MSPH P6309: Biochemistry basic to environmental health
  • MSPH P6530: Issues and approaches in health policy
  • MSPH P6700: Introduction to sociomedical sciences

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