Every time a garbage truck dumps a load of trash at a landfill, the landfill gets paid a fee. And even though tipping fees were intended to discourage waste, the business model creates an awkward situation: If waste companies make money by filling up landfills, they might have less incentive to recycle.
A new waste startup is trying to do things differently. Unlike the huge companies that dominate the industry—like Waste Management, which owns hundreds of landfills along with its fleets of garbage trucks-startup Rubicon is a waste consultant, rather than a company that actually picks up trash.
Rubicon gets paid in part by how much it’s able to recycle, not how much ends up in a landfill. They work with large businesses with large volumes of trash, and part of their job involves searching for unusual markets for that waste. For a national pizza chain, they discovered that leftover dough could be turned into fuel. At a supermarket chain, they helped turn hundreds of thousands of old uniforms into stuffing for pet beds.
The startup also helps businesses save money by connecting them with a network of local haulers who compete on price to pick up waste. They aren’t the first company to act as brokers for trash, but they may be the first to focus on cashing in from the recycling aspect.
“We saw brokers as lowering the price but not solving the problem, which was ultimately how to find alternative uses and keep the waste out of the landfill,” says Lane Moore, co-founder and executive chairman of Rubicon. “I think a lot of the traditional players are very much incentivized to put it in the landfill versus finding alternative uses.”
By buying up vast quantities of waste, the company helps businesses save money. “We’re hoping to go in and let companies allow us to take over and manage their waste and recycling,” Moore says. “We’re the largest buyer of waste in the country. We want to take advantage of our buying power to help them reduce cost. Recycling efforts are not sustainable if they cost you more money.”
Rubicon also helps save money through better use of tech in an industry that’s still fairly low-tech. By putting sensors in dumpsters, for example, they can tell when a bin is full, and signal a truck to come pick it up only at that point; right now, since haulers often are paid for every pickup, they might come by when a dumpster’s only half-full. Rubicon also saves money by mapping out the most efficient routes for haulers.
Ultimately, tech may also help lead to better ways to recycle. By using more sophisticated analysis of what’s going in the trash, Rubicon is building a database that they hope can inspire entrepreneurs to find new solutions for formerly hard-to-recycle items. If someone learns exactly how much leftover pizza dough is going in landfills, for example, that might inspire the next startup.
Of course, easily-recyclable materials are ending up in landfills now-and Rubicon thinks they can help avoid that. Americans throw out $11.4 billion of recyclables every year. By 2020, Rubicon hopes to help its corporate clients divert 100% of waste from landfills. Eventually, they hope to work with city trash from consumers, too.
“The commercial, more traditional space we play in today is the entry point for us,” says Moore. “But we think there is a much larger play that extends to the residential market and the municipal market.”