Rubicon’s mission is to end waste. This has been true since our company’s founding, and in addition, our commitment has always been to ensure that we foster our employees’ creativity and innovation while at Rubicon®, and even further out as they move forward in their careers.
We like to keep in touch with former employees, and I recently spoke with former Rubicon team member, Aaron Friedman-Heiman. During his time at Rubicon, Aaron was a Waste Diversion Specialist focused on organics recycling. Last year, he made the decision to step back into academia, and he is currently studying for his Master of Science in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, with a specialization in Geospatial Data Science.
Aaron and I talked about his background in sustainability, organic waste diversion, and what working at Rubicon taught him about the importance of meeting customers where they are at in terms of organics recycling.
Ryan Cooper: Could you tell us a little about your background and what triggered your interest in sustainability?
Aaron Friedman-Heiman: My interest in sustainability is twofold. The more traditional side is that I grew up heavily exposed to nature—camping, fishing, and beaching off the coast of Georgia, backpacking and canoeing in various parks. Many of my most memorable childhood and adult experiences have taken place outside. These experiences gave me, like many others, a profound appreciation for our planet, and a desire to contribute to maintaining all it has to offer (including our presence as residents).
The other side is perhaps more practical. As I got older, I was thinking about what I wanted to do… what is my purpose… relatively standard existential questions. I’ve always been more of a math and science-focused person, and I was perplexed by what I now know as the linear economy. I kept seeing waste within systems whether that be material waste, wasted energy, time, etc. and it didn’t make sense to me. My recognition that there was something fundamentally wrong with how we operate and my inability to make sense of it ultimately inspired me to study sustainability and to work to fix our systems.
RC: At Rubicon, you focused on organics recycling. What is it about the diversion of organic waste in particular that interested you?
AFH: I have a great passion for gardening and permaculture. Built into those practices is an appreciation and emphasis on building healthy soils—the most fundamental way of doing so is recycling organic waste. Also, practically speaking, organic waste always seemed the most approachable. It’s very simple to say, “Here’s a bunch of material that grew out of the earth—food scraps, woody material, etc.—we can recycle this by incorporating it back into the earth.”
Within organic waste, food waste also has a major social component. More than one in every 10 people in the United States are food insecure and that statistic is more than three times higher if you look at the globe. So embedded in organic waste diversion is an incredible opportunity to feed people while reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
I think I was an appealing candidate for Rubicon because I had a relatively strong background in organic waste; in college, I developed a small community garden and composting site, and after graduating I conducted applied research for nearly two years on anaerobic digestion technology among other things. What I didn’t realize was how much I would learn through my role. Working at Rubicon for nearly three years, I was able to develop a substantial understanding of numerous material streams and the various recycling technologies for managing each of them. That education was thanks, in large part, to the incredible team I worked on, which is full of experts in their respective fields.
RC: What did working at Rubicon teach you about the importance of meeting customers where they are at in terms of organics recycling?
AFH: At Rubicon, as I was working on projects with various customers and teams simultaneously, understanding customer goals and priorities was imperative, not only for executing zero-waste goals, but also for communication more broadly.
Just to provide some background, after working in research, I joined Rubicon knowing that it was an opportunity to drive immense impact in the sustainability space. I was working with Fortune 500 companies, each of which produced tens to hundreds of tons of organic waste every month, so any amount of diversion equated to a significant impact. That being said, communicating in terms that resonated and aligned with customer priorities was the difference between a successful program and closing the door on an opportunity. It was particularly exciting when we could improve customer waste diversion while decreasing their overhead costs.
RC: Can you name a favorite project that you worked on at Rubicon?
AFH: I have two favorite projects:
Managing Chipotle’s organics recycling initiative: In collaboration with their sustainability team, we successfully implemented organics programs at 27 percent of Chipotle’s stores nationwide. This was particularly meaningful both in terms of impact and with respect to the depth and breadth of my involvement. We helped develop and inform corporate strategy while also working directly with individual Chipotle restaurant locations, developing training materials and troubleshooting.
My other favorite project was an internal one. I had a lot of fun learning about data and developing dashboards through Business Intelligence (BI) platforms. Towards the end of my time at Rubicon, I started a project reviewing and restructuring how our customer data is input. It would be cumbersome to get into the details, but essentially, in collaboration with the sustainability team, I developed a data input strategy which allows for greater recognition and optimization of customer diversion opportunities. It’s particularly validating to know that the projects I worked to develop continue to operate and expand even after leaving the organization.
RC: You’re currently studying for your Master of Science in Environment and Sustainability, with a specialization in Geospatial Data Science, at the University of Michigan. How is that going, and what is next for you once you graduate?
AFH: It’s going really well. The reason that I came here is largely to develop my technical and business background as I ultimately plan to launch a consulting business, which I believe will drastically expand organic recycling infrastructure across the United States.
To that end, I’ve focused more on developing my technical background with skills like systems modeling and various methods of data analysis. I have also joined Michigan Climate Venture (MCV), a student-run climate impact venture fund, as a Circular Economy Associate. My role in MCV has allowed me to learn a lot about startup funding as well as keys and hurdles to building a successful company. Beyond the education, the communities in Ann Arbor, within my program, and particularly in MCV have been incredibly welcoming and supportive. While taking a hiatus from full-time work is unnerving, returning to school was absolutely the right decision. Even in the past semester I’ve experienced tremendous growth and look forward to what the next year and a half has to offer.
Ryan Cooper is Director of Circular Economy Solutions at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.