Published on WIRED on July 6, 2015
Written by Issie Lapowsky
IN A WORLD of on-demand everything, consumers still have next to no say in how their garbage is handled. Garbage companies strike contracts with local governments and set their own pickup schedules. The only choice consumers are left with is whether to buy Hefty bags or Glad.
But that could soon change if Rubicon Global has its way. The company, which has raised millions of dollars to help Fortune 500 companies manage their own garbage and recycling loads, is now working on an app for the residential market. ItÂ would allow the average homeowner or apartment dweller to schedule a garbage pickup the same way they might hail an Uber.
This may sound like a small thing. Unlike catching a cab in a remote part of town, after all, putting out the garbage every Tuesday and Thursday isn’t all that inconvenient. Most of us probably don’t give much thought to garbage pickups, and we like it that way. But what makes Rubicon’s plan potentially important is the fact that its entire business is structured around reducing the cost of garbage collection and finding new ways to recycle materials that would otherwise get dumped in a landfill.
Unlike Waste Management and other garbage giants, Rubicon doesn’t operate its own trucks or own any landfills. Instead, it runs a tech platform that connects small, local haulers with major companies that want to cut down on their garbage costs and increase their recycling efforts. To do that, Rubicon takes stock of a company’s trash flow and sells valuable materials off to recycling and upcycling partners across the country.
Cut the Garbage
Rubicon’s entire business is structured around reducing the cost of garbage collection.
Meanwhile, it looks for opportunities to cut down on the number of pickups its clients get each week to help them reduce costs. Rubicon gets paid based on the amount of money it can save clients and how many recyclables it can sell off. By realigning the revenue model around how much trash it can divert from landfills, Rubicon is building a valuable trash business that doesn’t trash the planet.
Now, the company wants to bring that model to every doorstep. The idea, says Nate Morris, co-founder and CEO of Rubicon, was largely the brainchild of Oscar Salazar, founding CTO of Uber, who is now joining the company as chief technology advisor. “We knew we had a large opportunity, but bringing Oscar on board really expanded our thinking and the possibility for disruption,” Morris says.
Rubicon’s residential app is similar to Uber, but includes a few more details that make the process slightly less instantaneous. Users schedule a pickup on their phones like they would with Uber and pay for pickups through the app, as well. But the request itself still has to go out to Rubicon’s network of haulers. The system prioritizes companies that have routes in the area and may already have a truck out on the road. In those cases, a pickup may be possible within a few hours. In areas where Rubicon’s network is not as dense, however, the user may have to wait until the next day. According to Morris, pricing will vary based on the volume being picked up and the availability of drivers, among other things.
Uber for Trash
The goal is to ensure that these pickups are cost effective not just for the users, but for the haulers too. One key to Rubicon’s business model is that it helps small hauling companies compete with multibillion dollar enterprises for business. In addition to offering consumers more choice, Rubicon’s move into the residential market doubles as a way to ensure that trucks are always as full as they can be. “We have multiple customers,” says Phil Rodoni, who also recently joined Rubicon as CTO to lead these efforts. “One is people engaging with us for trash collection, but the others are the haulers themselves. We want that ecosystem to be alive and healthy.”
The app is still in beta testing in several markets, but Morris says he expects to launch it publicly in the coming months. As Rubicon’s network of haulers grows, Morris says the goal is to ensure pickups within half an hour of every request. It’s just one of many ways, he says, that technology is loosening the stranglehold that companies like Waste Management have had on this industry for far too long. We know from the past, Morris says, that when technology competes against brick-and-mortar assets, technology wins every time.