Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Here’s what Uber-for-garbage plans to do for the dirty world of waste management.
So you’ve got a plus-sized haul of Hefty bags after a particularly well-attended July 4th party. Or a hulking mattress you’ve vacuum-sealed in plastic and spray-painted with a pentagram (what everyone does, post-bedbugs, I presume). You drag it to the curb, call up the city’s bulk garbage collection service, schedule a pick-up, and…wait. Days. The trash bags grow putrescent. The sight of the mattress induces nausea and dizziness.
In situations like these, one wishes there were an Uber for trash. That’s what a new app by the waste management brokerage company Rubicon Global proposes to be.
Rubicon has been in the commercial waste management business since 2008, ensuring that big-time trash-generators (think hospitals, supermarket chains, and Fortune-500 corporations) get their recycling and garbage picked up. But Rubicon doesn’t own landfills, trucks, or recycling plants—it owns technology that connects local waste haulers with clients. Rubicon claims its model reduces unnecessary pick-ups and charges that other, asset-heavy private trash companies, like WM, are incentivized to make.
“If you own a landfill, and you own trucks, your primary financial driver is to pick up garbage and fill that landfill,” says Nate Morris, Rubicon’s CEO and co-founder. “But we have no dog in that fight.”
Instead, Rubicon makes money based off how much it’s able to save clients—and by how much trash it can divert from landfills. When new customers come on board, Rubicon assesses their waste flow, and sells off anything of value to recyclers (and pockets the profit). It also looks for ways to maximize efficiency by cutting down the frequency of clients’ pickups, which in turn reduces costs.
Now, the company wants to bring a similar model to neighborhoods. Homeowners and apartment dwellers will be able to open an app and schedule curbside (or walk-up!) service. Rubicon then dispatches the request to its network of haulers. Depending on availability, a truck could be at your doorstep within hours, though it could take as long as a day. You’ll pay through the app—the specific fee will depend on your volume of trash and how difficult it is to get a hauler out to you.
The price will have to be right, of course. After all, how much would you be willing to pay to have your sullied Solo cups picked up, on top of the taxes or fees you’re already paying for municipal service?
Morris wouldn’t be specific about the cost to consumers. “We believe that we can provide a service to households and businesses at the same or better cost than their current service,” he says. He believes that consumers will use Rubicon not only for one-offs, but eventually, as a complete alternative to their regular city service. And at that point, Rubicon hopes that cities and counties will begin to analyze the way they’ve been doing their dirty business—be it through public sector workers or private contracts worth hundreds of millions—and consider switching over, entirely, to Rubicon.
“City and local governments are having a hard time making ends meet,” Morris says. “In many cases, they’re getting gouged on pricing by their waste contracts. We can provide cost savings, and an opportunity for governments to better serve citizens.”
He envisions a future where customers wouldn’t necessarily need a smartphone to use Rubicon’s services—they’d be able to them through a government website or office.
But just how likely are cities to adopt Rubicon’s model—or even allow it? Chaz Miller, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the National Waste and Recycling Association, says that cities where public sector workers collect trash (Washington, D.C. and New York City, for instance) have laws prohibiting private sector haulers from treading on their territory.
“The federal and Supreme Court law is very clear: Solid waste is local,” Miller says. “Local governments tend to guard that responsibility very jealously and carefully.”
Plus, cities began to collect garbage out of concern over disease outbreaks. Transferring liability for public health from the government to an app warrants a good deal of consideration.
Morris isn’t worried. “We believe our approach will lead to a change in hearts and minds from city officials and local governments, resulting in increased public support and ultimately a change in laws,” he says.
And besides, as Miller points out, more and more cities have already been turning to private contractors to manage their waste. “There has been a slow and steady increase in privatization of waste and solid waste services,” he says. “Cities are seeing cost advantages without any health or environmental drawbacks. Toronto, Detroit, Toledo—they’ve all privatized within the last five or so years.”
So if a local government can get an even better deal by contracting Rubicon, why wouldn’t it? Civil servants could lose jobs, and citizens could lose transparency. But that’s part of the decade’s great wave of privatization of public services—for better or for worse.