The Importance of Environmental, Social, and Governance Efforts in the COVID-19 Era: A Q&A with Rubicon

Rubicon, an industry leader in providing smart waste and recycling solutions for businesses and governments worldwide, released its inaugural Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Report earlier this month.

The report details an array of sustainability solutions based on the company’s experiences delivering positive environmental results for customers. We wanted to learn more, so we followed up with David Rachelson, chief sustainability officer.

Read on for his take on zero waste trends, the effect of the pandemic on the industry, the role of waste haulers in the circular economy, and more.

Are financial incentives still a bigger motivator than moral/environmental concerns for waste generators?

Rubicon has always strived to marry positive environmental benefits and financial returns. Historically, this has not always been the case in our industry. But growing awareness of the threat posed by diminishing finite resources and a changing climate are awakening the business community.

We are now seeing sustainability practices and ESG plans not just recommended by potential investors but also demanded. Influential investors like BlackRock’s Larry Fink have come forward and specifically stated that they will not invest without specific sustainability and ESG plans in place. Similarly, State Street and Vanguard have created specific funds that focus on ESG-minded companies. There is still a ways to go, but we are thrilled to see an idea that’s been clear to us since our inception — that business must be a force for social and environmental good —gaining traction among more and more business leaders.

Is being a zero waste company an increasingly popular goal?

In our ESG report, we describe a “waste wakeup call,” a realization — ushered in by the accumulation of trash in our cities and landfills, our oceans and beaches, and even in our bodies—that waste is literally destroying our world. And we’re seeing more and more companies coming to this realization that circularity is an imperative, and beginning to lead the change to a circular economy. Embracing zero waste practices, in earnest, is a meaningful, tangible way for an organization to communicate that they’ve received the wake-up call, loud and clear, to their stakeholders.

Are hard-to-recycle items the next big thing, as we have gotten a lot of the low-hanging fruit?

As companies stay true to their zero waste goals, hard-to-recycle items become more relevant to achieving the “last mile” toward zero waste. For us, it starts with a simple approach: we see value in all materials, and we are working with a variety of clients to help them capture that value. We feel uniquely positioned to meet this increasing demand for solutions to these stubborn waste streams with our growing network of circular partners. I think we’ll continue to see this demand grow, and as a consequence, more innovative solutions proliferate.

How important is the role waste haulers can play in sustainability?

Haulers are an essential link in the circular economy chain. We believe that a thriving network of small and independent haulers is necessary for a circular economy to become a reality by providing an alternative to those few hauling companies that are inextricably tied to landfills. Our technology is aimed at helping haulers do their jobs more efficiently and effectively. We want to empower our haulers to reduce landfill use, and to do so profitably.

Can you talk about the need for sustainably minded innovation in the construction industry?

The EPA estimates that approximately 530 million tons of construction and demolition waste is generated annually. That’s more than the municipal waste generated by all U.S. cities combined.

By 2060, current projections estimate that globally, society will build the equivalent of the City of Paris each week. So, the only way to reconcile growth and environmental health is through widespread adoption of circular practices. It is our hope that the increased focus on green building standards will result in greater attention to sustainable management of construction materials. The biggest challenge is actually getting people to understand that this transformation is possible.

As one example, in 2019, we worked with a global construction firm on an audacious goal: diverting at least 90 percent of waste generated from a large-scale project. We looked at every opportunity to keep waste out of landfills—even food waste from the construction crews themselves, setting up separate bins and other composting infrastructure. At the conclusion, the project achieved a 97 % diversion rate, far surpassing the baseline for industry recognition and certification.

How should COVID-19 affect our approach to waste, recycling and sustainability?

The pandemic has shown people how quickly life can change and impact every part of society. We should realize that the looming crisis of an unhindered linear economy makes the circular economy even more urgent than ever. Even though we’ve seen some organizations using COVID-19 as a justification for rolling back recycling programs, we’ve seen even more customers who remain just as committed to their waste reduction goals as they were before the pandemic took hold.

Also, the shifting waste stream will be one of the biggest changes to take hold in response to current events. As the old expression goes, “We can’t manage what we don’t measure.” In the past, there were limited efforts to create a truly systemic understanding of waste. That’s why our approach is rooted in data gathering, analysis, and digital tools that are essential to making waste truly visible, and therefore manageable. It gives us the ability to help our partners and customers pivot quickly as their waste stream changes. Companies and consumers want to continue recycling, enacting sustainability goals, and doing the right thing; they just need the data and tools to adapt to a changing landscape.

Will fears of disease hurt recycling and sustainability efforts?

It is more critical now than ever to support and ensure the safety of our haulers and the staff that tirelessly work at processing facilities. This comes down to educating society on the recycling process and how these materials are handled. Ultimately, it is critical to continue recycling and avoiding waste since there are detrimental environmental, health, and social impacts from increasing the use of landfills and generation of waste.

Can the economy become more circular post pandemic?

The pandemic has shed light on the importance of resilience in business. Simply put, businesses that adopt circular economy principles are more resilient — less vulnerable to supply chain disruptions, more efficient in their use of resources, etc. We believe that many of the building blocks are in place to transition the world to a circular economy, and anticipate this shift advancing throughout the course of the pandemic and once it concludes.

We see these strategies as critical in achieving a circular economy:

  1. we need to “design out” waste from products and materials;
  2. we need to use products and materials longer;
  3. we need to compost and build other regenerative systems.

For more information and to view Rubicon’s ESG report, visit: https://www.rubicon.com/esg-report/

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