Uber, Airbnb and a host of other apps are proliferating in the name of the sharing economy. Those two, respectively, have disrupted traditional business models and changed how people get around cities and travel to other places.
The question is, does the sharing economy have implications for the waste and recycling industry as well?
That’s the bet that Atlanta-based Rubicon Global is making. The firm is building a virtual marketplace allows local haulers to bid on their clients’ contracts for hauling and disposal, while Rubicon’s software and associates help identify new methods for waste diversion and recycling tailored to each client.
“This is the first step in moving the waste industry into the 21st century. Google often refers to it as the restacking of the industry,” Lexington, Ky.-based Rubicon Global’s Co-founder and CEO Nate Morris says. “The mobile phone is the remote control for life. Peoples’ expectations have changed about how and when service should occur. It’s more vital than ever to offer a service with choice and flexibility–even when it comes to waste. We believe that we must move now or the industry will continue to be left behind.”
But Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy for National Waste & Recycling Association based in Washington, D.C., says that on-demand services have been available in the waste and recycling industry for some time. It just hasn't historically been optimized for smartphones.
“Usually (it is) in the form of being able to contact a hauler and arrange for an immediate collection, typically at a premium rate as there are logistical considerations, such as an available truck and crew,” he says. “That being said, ours is an industry known for innovation, both in technology and in entrepreneurship, so we and the industry will watch with interest to see how the marketplace reacts to a new business model.”
Miller says there are some concerns, however.
“One thing to consider is that some of the key elements of the recycling ecosystem are the cost savings that come from energy savings and fleet routing and scheduling that maximize efficiencies," he says. "So, doing special collection of recyclables could potentially erode those efficiencies.”
David Biderman, executive director and CEO of Silver Spring, Md.-based SWANA, agrees.
“Waste collection service is a local governmental responsibility, and it will be up to local governments to determine whether (on-demand) business model is consistent with local needs," he says. "There are numerous efficiencies in existing routes and waste collection systems, and some of these could potentially be lost if each individual customer has the ability to demand ‘on request’ service.
While on-demand waste and recycling collection technologies may not be ideal for efficiency, several new technologies have emerged in the industry.
“The industry is already seeing smarter bins and smarter trucks," Morris says. "Rubicon’s technology is adding optimized routing and smarter dispatching to the mix. Our cloud-based platform is able to take advantage of these technological advances because it seamlessly connects the dots. The result is better service and better pricing for our customers – and greater business opportunity for our network of independent vendors.”
According to Miller, the introduction and adoption of new and innovative technologies in the industry is a constant.
“For example, on the processing side, the use of optical sorters, air knives and other technologies has enabled dramatic advances in efficiencies in processing. Other industry suppliers have been working on what types of bins/containers are needed for organic collection,” he says. “On the other hand, in the news recently, other practical technologies, such as bear-proof bins, are being adopted in areas such as Florida and Colorado where bears are increasingly moving into human habitat at an increasing rate.”
Biderman adds that mobile technology is helping to improve the industry.
“As people in the waste industry have become more comfortable using technology, mobile and the cloud in their personal lives, it has made it easier for them to use it productively at work,” says Biderman. “I expect this trend to continue in coming years, and as younger professionals rise to increasingly prominent positions in the industry.”