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Waste and recycling in the circular economy

Waste and recycling, America’s cities, and their taxpayers

By necessity, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a wave of single-use, disposable items, and designing a resilient recovery will require a commitment to circular practices. That includes the ways cities collect and divert their waste, how manufacturers package their goods, and how food producers manage their carbon footprints.

In the City of Baltimore, as with many municipalities across the country, solid waste and recycling personnel were considered essential workers at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As residential waste and recycling volumes ballooned with more people sheltered in place, the outbreak hit the City’s solid waste drivers and dispatchers, sidelining many of the workers. As a result, Baltimore was forced to suspend curbside recycling collection for six months. A complicating factor in Baltimore was its reliance on individual driver memory and printed schedules for pickup routes. The pandemic made it clear that the city needed to digitize its operations so drivers could cover the routes as efficiently as possible.


garbage collection vehicles

Baltimore, MD


potholes on route 07

Rubicon’s solution includes an in-cab interface and a small device that plugs into the diagnostic port in each of the city’s 159 garbage collection vehicles. The tools create a digital map of all routes, allowing fill-in drivers to follow a digitally generated schedule of pickup locations. There is also dynamic rerouting of vehicles in case a driver is delayed, assigning a helper vehicle to cover the stops. These investments have enabled Baltimore to use remote technology to operate its sanitation department—helping the city deliver on its core mission in the face of a catastrophic event.

These kinds of technologies will, we believe, allow for the collection and analysis of data essential to unlocking new solutions to support the circular economy. The more we know about waste and how it is handled, the easier it will be to create smart infrastructure critical to the proper handling, recycling, and disposal of waste. This will create a stronger platform for the circular economy and create new economic opportunities and jobs.

Rubicon is also helping customers address these challenges in the midst of unprecedented economic upheaval. Consider, for instance, that sales of hand sanitizer surged 600 percent in 2020 compared to the prior year, making it one of the most in-demand products since the onset of the pandemic.16 But the products have been subject to numerous manufacturer recalls because of poisoning risk.17 Rubicon stepped in to help a national retailer return the defective product for refunds—designing a program that complied with hazardous waste laws.

Separately, for the same national retailer, we manage a personal protective equipment (PPE) mail-back and recycling program for more than 270 of the company’s stores. Rubicon sends the PPE to a steam- and electricity-generating waste-to-energy (WTE) plant. This program utilizes a carbon neutral shipping program which redirects shipping surcharges to green funds in order to offset the carbon footprint of the shipments.18