The Sustaining Passion of an Applied Environmental Chemist

Taylor Burgdorf of HiTECH Assets on how he’s built a career around protecting environmental and human health as electronic waste proliferates

By: Neil Savage, special to C&EN

Taylor Burgdorf
Taylor Burgdorf helps collect used PCs for recycling at an Earth Day event held by his company, HiTECH Assets.

The environment is of major concern to Taylor Burgdorf. He worries about climate change and the proliferation of plastic waste. So it makes sense that he would channel his chemistry background into a job where he could help combat environmental degradation.

Burgdorf is sustainability manager at HiTECH Assets in Baltimore. The company helps businesses recycle their electronics—computers, servers, printers, screens—ensuring the security of their data and the proper handling of certain toxic materials and waste. His job is to ensure that his company and the companies it works with are in compliance with the requirements of various recycling certifications.

He got into the field after earning a BA in chemistry and environmental science from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2010. By the next year he was a senior environmental chemist and project manager—“I would really say an applied environmental chemist”—at McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

He helped the company’s clients investigate chemical components of their products and whether they might contain anything dangerous that could make its way into waterways or soil and eventually into people. “My chemistry background has allowed me some great visibility into the world of environmental health and human health,” Burgdorf says.

He worked there for 6 years but wanted to broaden his scope. So he went to the University of Southern Maine for an MBA with a concentration in sustainability, gaining a broader understanding of business. Along the way, he did an internship with a company called Traps Eyewear, which handcrafts the wood from old lobster traps into eyeglass frames; he helped the company develop environmentally friendly packaging.

He’s been at HiTECH since September 2018. “I felt environmental awareness and due diligence, recycling, and environmental health were only going to be more and more important as more people use technology, as these technology companies grow,” he says.

Who inspires you?

The owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. He created arguably the most sustainable apparel company in the world.

Who’s your science hero?

Conservationist and author Rachel Carson.

What’s your science obsession?

Renewable chemistry, the manipulation of yeast and bacteria to produce bioderived starting materials for polymers and fibers and such.

What keeps you up at night?

Other than climate change, I’d have to say the accumulation of waste around the globe.

What do you think is the biggest environmental problem?

Fossil-fuel consumption.

How many old cell phones do you have?

Before I started this job I had about seven. Now I actually can say I have zero.

What do you find hardest to throw away?

Plastic bags. Sandwich bags and such. I actually wash those and reuse those until the bitter end.

What was your favorite experiment as a student?

I got to use a Geiger counter in toxicology lab, testing toxicology effects of uranium on human bladder cells. Spooning out the uranium while holding a Geiger counter was really neat. A little nerve-wracking but cool nonetheless.

What are your hobbies?

Now that I live in Baltimore, I don’t get to do it as much, but I’m a big surfer. Golfing. And I’m a huge beer enthusiast.

What’s your favorite beer?

Dinner from Maine Beer Company.

Neil Savage is a freelance contributor to Chemical & Engineering News, the newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society. This interview was edited for length and clarity.