Vu Nguyen, senior manager, Corporate Development and Innovation at Waste Management (WM), helps to design technological solutions for waste challenges. A rising leader at WM, Nguyen was part of the WM 2019 Leadership Forum, and he was named as a Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient.
He spoke with Waste360 about developing technologies to support waste conversion strategies, working with robotics and autonomous vehicles, and creating solutions that have the potential to change the industry.
Waste360: What are some of your major responsibilities as senior manager with WM’s Corporate Development and Innovation team?
Vu Nguyen: What we are trying to do is be the center of excellence on innovation for Waste Management. Part of what I do is help think through innovative technologies to solve problems, not only on behalf of waste but on behalf of our customers as well. For instance, if you are a customer, and you had a particular problem, issue or challenge, and you needed some help in identifying that, we would come in and see if we could shepherd that process along.
Waste360: For WM, why is it important to have this type of innovative team?
Vu Nguyen: It really is to foster innovative thought processes throughout our entire organization and help change our current culture to be better and more progressive. I really think I have one of the best jobs in waste management, and I am sure you talk to a lot of folks, and even folks at WM [who say that], but I get to work on extremely interesting things, while also, essentially, helping other folks.
Waste360: What are some projects that you have been working on?
Vu Nguyen: One of the initiatives we are looking at here is, how do we start to think through our waste and create a higher value product derived from waste? For example, for one project, we take trash and go through a mechanical separation process. Then we are creating a commercial roofboard out of that.
Imagine all your plastics, your straws, your plastic bags in the grocery store, and your mixed paper that you throw away in your trash can that doesn’t get recycled. All that trash that typically would go to a landfill is now being converted into a roofboard used in commercial applications that you would see at retail box stores.
Waste360: That is something that WM is pioneering?
Vu Nguyen: Exactly. The whole idea is about focusing on sustainability and [the] circular economy. In this case, the retail store would buy the roofboards from us and dispose of their trash at the facility. Their trash gets converted into a roofboard that they ultimately will use.
Waste360: You also work on the waste-to-energy program initiative?
Vu Nguyen: The waste-to-energy program is a little bit of the same idea, but instead of going to a roofboard it’s actually being used as a coal replacement. In this case, power producers, like a coal fire plant and cement kilns utilize the fuel in replacement of coal.
Waste360: You worked on an augmented reality deployment for the fleet maintenance group. What was that project?
Vu Nguyen: Like I said, I get to work on a lot of cool technologies that are out there and are cutting edge. We developed a partnership with a third party to develop an augmented reality tool to help technicians work on our fleet.
One of the cool things that came out of all of this is that not only did it make the technicians’ lives a little but easier and they became a little more efficient, but what was really interesting was that we gained some people, in this case, they were welders, who knew how to use tools and things of that nature, but they had never worked on a truck themselves. They were able to complete pretty complicated tasks from start to finish within the designated timeframe without making any mistakes.
You literally take a tablet, and using the camera on the tablet, show the camera the application that you’re working on and it will tell you exactly what step you need to do. It has the animation, and you can overlay exactly where you need to put the wrench, it will show you what direction you need to turn the wrench, what bolt you need to take off. It walks you from A to Z.
Waste360: Have you found that this has been helpful for improving efficiency?
Vu Nguyen: Exactly. It does help that. There is a little bit of a learning curve. Some of our folks are not necessarily the best at technology so we are kind of training folks up to get to that level.
Another project I am working on is with remote-controlled heavy equipment, such as the bulldozers and compactors that you would see out on the landfill. That is really interesting. Folks that are a little bit used to the technology, such as being behind a computer screen, have taken grasp of this and have charged forward. It’s amazing what you are able to do behind a computer, where just a couple of years ago, this wasn’t imaginable.
Waste360: You implemented the project at a Denver landfill and then the operators are offsite?
Vu Nguyen: In this case, they are about two miles away. In future iterations of this we will be testing it at long distances. We are looking to do somewhere around 200 miles away and operating completely remote.
Waste360: What do you think are the advantages of that for the operators?
Vu Nguyen: From an operations perspective, there is not having the nuance of climbing up and down the stairs, and then getting hurt. Slips, trips and falls are one of our main concerns while these operators are getting in and out of the [equipment].
The other aspect of it is we can now tap a completely different labor pool that we hadn’t really thought about before. Some of these folks potentially could have a disability that would prevent them from climbing in and out of the [equipment]. Now they could just go to an office and sit in a comfortable chair and operate the machine that way.
Waste360: Why do you think the waste industry is an industry that people who are just starting off in their careers should consider?
Vu Nguyen: There’s so much opportunity for a young person in this industry because of the way that it has grown and matured into where it is today, and people can come in with innovative thoughts and really have the potential to disrupt this industry in a way that none of us has thought through. I also feel like there is an age gap, and I think if we don’t fill that gap somewhere or in some form, there is going to be a lot of expertise and knowledge that’s going to be lost once folks start to retire.
Also, our industry is not diverse at all. It’s pretty uniform, and we really need a more diverse set of folks working in this industry. I am a huge champion of diversity, particularly gender diversity because our industry is about 90 percent male.
Waste360: You said that you really like what you are doing, talk to me about something that you are excited or proud that you have gotten to work on at WM.
Vu Nguyen: I really think the reason why I am so excited to work here is because of the people. My team that I work with is incredible. I haven’t met another team like this in my career, and I am very proud to be part of it.