Turning Waste into Green
Bay Area-bred Walter H. Singer, B.S. CE ’82, came to USC as an undergraduate to play water polo. He recalls the smog being so bad on some days in the late 1970s that practice had to be canceled.
That experience deeply informed what became his ultimate goal: managing companies’ waste products in a way that preserves the Earth for our grandchildren.
ACTenviro, his waste-management and recycling solutions company, is a seven-time placer on “Inc.” magazine’s list of America’s 5000 fastest-growing private companies, and was honored by the magazine in June as one of the “50 Best Workplaces” in the United States.
ACTenviro has grown through a focus on customizing unique programs for clients supplemented by acquisitions. The company’s key innovation, recycling waste and converting it into energy, has won it a steady stream of business.
But Singer also believes ACTenviro’s success is due in large measure to its emphasis on taking care of its 350-plus employees.
It all started with Singer’s entrepreneurial mind-set to find a need in the marketplace and fill it.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from USC Viterbi and an MBA from San Francisco State in 1989 while working for construction giant Bechtel, Singer ventured into marketing in the then-infant biotech industry before starting his own contracting company.
In 2000, Singer saw an opportunity in hazardous waste disposal. He launched ACTenviro to pick up byproducts from biotech, R&D labs and the like, haul the waste away and recycle or dispose of it. That remains ACTenviro’s core business.
“I spent $28,000 to buy a 14-foot-long box van truck, leased a small office, and started off being open only on Tuesday and Thursday mornings,” Singer recalled.
Today, ACTenviro is headquartered in Sunnyvale, California, and has 14 locations in the western U.S., including a treatment facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Revenues are expected to total $100 million next year.
The company offers a variety of waste-management services, and its mantra is sustainability. Ranked the 51stst-largest waste and recycling firm in North America by “Waste360” magazine, ACTenviro recycles 87 percent of its customers’ waste.
“That’s our claim to fame, and what I’m most proud of,” Singer said.
The liquid waste-derived fuels program in Albuquerque is a prime example of ACTenviro’s sustainability ethic in action. The driver-technicians of ACTenviro’s fleet of trucks — an increasing number of which are diesel-electric hybrids — collect a variety of liquid wastes. Those that have any fuel value are sent to cement kilns, where they provide power for the energy-intensive operations required to make the ubiquitous construction material.
Likewise, in another demonstration of ACTenviro’s sustainable approach, ACTenviro treats many waste solvents and cleaners so that the same chemicals can be reused multiple times by companies such as paint and adhesive manufacturers, at a less-pure concentration.
Perhaps the best illustration of ACTenviro’s efforts is its groundbreaking Microwave Disinfection Unit, or MDU, which began operating in early 2016 in Escondido, California.
The MDU, the first of its kind in the state to offer a waste-to-energy option, disinfects and shreds into confetti-like pieces so-called “red bag” medical waste: solid or liquid items contaminated with blood or other potentially infectious materials.
After the red-bag waste is shredded, the MDU steams away the liquid components. The resulting material is shipped to a waste-to-energy facility for incineration, which creates steam that drives a turbine and generates electricity. One ton of this treated waste can power an average home for more than two weeks.
As excited as Singer, now 57, gets when talking about ACTenviro’s technology, though, he places no less importance on maintaining an employee-first philosophy.
In 2016, for example, ACTenviro topped its revenue goal by 5 percent, so everyone got a 5 percent raise on top of their normal ones.
“In my heart, I know I’m doing something good,” Singer said. “I’m able to use company profits to enrich the lives of the 350 people who work for me.”
ACTenviro emphasizes work-life balance by providing flexibility in scheduling. This benefits women all the more, as studies have shown thatt women shoulder more responsibility than men when it comes to childcare and household tasks. The company was recognized by “Fortune” magazine as the 19th-best workplace in the U.S. for women.
“In a man-dominated world,” Singer said, “I’m really proud of that.”