Spend a few minutes on the phone with Nate Morris and, in a slight Southern drawl, he’ll shatter any preconceived notions you might have about environmentalists. Morris, 34, is a Republican and free-market evangelist from Lexington, Kentucky. He counts Rand Paul as a close friend. At no point in our chat does he quote from An Inconvenient Truth. And if his waste and recycling business succeeds, it will strengthen his assertion that “entrepreneurs, not governments and NGOs, will solve some of the biggest environmental problems.”
Morris is CEO and co-founder of Rubicon, an Atlanta-based outfit that finds creative homes for waste generated by large companies. When Northeast grocery chain Wegmans needed to dispose of thousands of old uniforms, Rubicon first connected the grocer to a pet bed company, which turned the uniforms into cushion stuffing, and then to a company that turns used textiles into automotive insulation. In another case, Morris’ company bought excess dough from a national pizza chain (he won’t name names) and sold it to a biofuel plant that converted it into ethanol.
Rather than owning physical assets such as trucks and landfills, Rubicon acts as a middleman. It’s not the first garbage broker, but it might be the first to use big data to monitor the ebb and flow of our country’s waste. It does so using proprietary software that analyzes and catalogs its clients’ trash, with the overall goal of keeping as much waste as possible out of the landfill. In the process, small waste and recycling haulers bid on contracts with large corporations through its online auction process. As a result, ma-and-pa haulers are able to compete on a local level with giants such as Waste Management.
“Waste is one of those industries that’s had little or no technological innovation,” says Morris, who founded his company in 2008 with friend Marc Spiegel. “We felt like it needed to be brought into the 21st century.” Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and others agree. Benioff is one of the key investors behind Rubicon’s recent $30 million cash grab.
Rubicon isn’t alone in using innovation and private investment to disrupt the waste and recycling sector. With offices in Melbourne, Sydney and London, Closed Loop offers recycling solutions and “waste audits” to companies that want to reduce or reuse trash. KFC Australia tapped it to implement the fast- food industry’s first “public place recycling program” in that country. Walk into many of the chain’s locations Down Under and you’ll see split bins that accept recyclables from inside and outside the stores. On the other side of the world, acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant Noma recently installed Closed Loop’s zero-waste machine, which turns food waste into compost in just 24 hours.
“On-site food waste recycling is an area that Closed Loop has been pioneering in a number of countries,” says the company’s marketing manager Joel Morris. “Not only is there an economic benefit for reducing waste, but there is value in the materials.”
Sounds like a no-brainer, but for years, recyclables were viewed as a liability due to the high cost of hauling them away and converting them to usable materials. Only recently has the world begun to see recycling as big business—not just the domain of nonprofits and government. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” says Morris of Rubicon, which today works with 5,000 vendors throughout North America. “Globally, there’s a trillion-dollar waste market out there waiting to be tapped.”
A micromicrocosm of this market can be found in Lagos, Nigeria, which generates nearly a million tons of plastic every year, equaling hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue. Former IBM software engineer Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola noted this potential and in 2012 cofounded Wecyclers, an exchange where locals trade bottles and cans for cellphone minutes, basic food items and household goods. Wecyclers currently nets close to 50 tons of recyclables per month, which it sorts and sells to area processors.
That’s small potatoes compared to Closed Loop, which is currently working with London Heathrow Airport to achieve a 70 percent recycling rate by the year 2020. But Adebiyi-Abiola’s start-up offers hope that ideas big and small will help rewire the world’s view on trash.
“Look at how successful the sharing economy has been in rebranding things like ride services,” says Rubicon’s CEO. “We believe that Rubicon is part of that sharing economy. Our secret sauce is the infrastructure we’re building around America. We’re first and foremost a technology company.”
Closed Loop’s Morris sees a future where food waste is banned from landfills and where more businesses and consumers adopt zero waste policies with the help of high-tech machines like the one used at Noma—and maybe make some money in the process. “Rich compost is becoming a commodity in its own right,” he says. “[It’s] a great example of truly closing the loop on waste and turning it back into a resource.”