Starting off in business school, Robert Hallenbeck’s career took a sharp turn during an internship at Waste Management (WM). He says it was his background, interest and passion that helped him make the switch into the waste and recycling industry.
Today, Hallenbeck remains at the Houston-based company as manager of corporate venturing. His primary responsibility is to understand and assess underlying technologies, market potential and fit within WM. Being able to push the envelope to develop and implement these new ideas that help improve the industry’s environmental footprint is what has keeps him motivated.
“Rob is a lifelong learner. He is always willing and able to assess all facets of a waste process, be it technical, financial, operational or policy-related aspects,” says Pat Ramm, Hallenbeck’s supervisor. “He is a terrific team player and wants to include others in the brainstorming because he enjoys hearing other ideas. He is very inquisitive around what makes things work and has a very natural and positive way of challenging paradigms, technologies or the status quo.”
We recently sat down with Hallenbeck, a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, to discuss his waste and recycling career journey and the role technology plays within the industry.
Waste360: How did you begin your career in the waste and recycling industry?
Robert Hallenbeck: I joined the industry through Waste Management’s Organic Growth Group (now known as Corporate Venturing) as an intern in summer 2010 between my first and second years of business school and then fulltime in 2011.
At the time, the hiring manager was looking for a chemical engineer doing an MBA in finance with a background in the chemicals industry who was also interested in sustainability. While I wasn’t necessarily looking for an opportunity in the waste and recycling industry, the position proved to be a perfect fit for my background, interests and passions.
Waste360: Describe your role as manager of corporate venturing at Waste Management.
Robert Hallenbeck: I oversee technology scouting of waste processing technologies for WM’s Corporate Venturing group. My primary responsibility is to understand and assess underlying technologies, market potential and fit within Waste Management.
Annually, I review approximately 100 opportunities received from a wide range of internal and external sources. The day-to-day role varies tremendously; however, I always enjoy talking to new companies to understand how their technology and business model could be a fit for our industry and for WM in particular.
Waste360: What do you consider your biggest achievement within the industry?
Robert Hallenbeck: WM’s Spectrum model. Co-developed with my colleague Susan Robinson, Spectrum is a communications tool based on lifecycle thinking and specifically greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, to help stakeholders prioritize decision-making.
Customers in our industry are increasingly challenged to achieve lofty diversion goals. At the same time, an underlying thinking of “diversion for diversion’s sake” and “zero waste” drive actions and decisions that can create hauling, processing and disposal activities with questionable environmental benefits. Spectrum aligns with other existing and emerging frameworks such as sustainability materials management (SMM), however by bringing cost into the equation, it also prioritizes what options achieve the most GHG emissions reduction for the least incremental cost.
A general conclusion is that best-in-class recycling of paper, cans and bottles in residential and commercial recycling along with investments to meet EPA’s [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] best-case landfill gas capture and use are the most cost-effective means for our industry to achieve meaningful GHG emissions reduction. Additional processing can achieve further GHG emissions reductions but at higher incremental costs for smaller incremental benefits.
Waste360: What keeps you motivated in your work now and moving forward?
Robert Hallenbeck: Talking to entrepreneurs and early-stage companies pushing the envelope to develop and implement new ideas to improve the environmental footprint of the waste and recycling industry.
Waste360: What role does technology play in the waste and recycling industry?
Robert Hallenbeck: The waste processing space is a fascinating but incredibly complicated puzzle, of which technology is only one of several components necessary for success. Social and policy drivers combined with new business models and end markets stepping up to pay for the products and services are required in order to achieve mutual financial and environmental objectives.
Waste360: What are some exciting technological opportunities that you see opening up within the industry?
Robert Hallenbeck: I believe there’s significant potential for continued expansion of renewable natural gas (RNG), sensors to efficiently capture data on the contents of waste and recycling stream and a variety of chemical recycling processes to manage heterogeneous and difficult-to-recycle waste streams. However, ultimately technologies and business models that utilize EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy and look upstream at source reduction and reuse will provide the greatest opportunity.
Waste360: What advice do you have for someone who is looking to make a career for themselves in the waste and recycling industry?
Robert Hallenbeck: Think outside the box—the opportunities most capable of moving the needle won’t come from doing things the same way as they’ve always been done.