As more people and companies seek a waste-free future – to reduce their disposal and maximize the reuse of materials – and expectations for ESG reporting rise, a new industry has emerged that uses software and other technologies to help them Achieve goals.
A leader in the growing zero-waste space is Rubicon, founded by Nate Morris who serves as Chairman and CEO. Based in Lexington, Kentucky and New York City, the company grew out of a shared interest in public order, the environment and the application of technology solutions to solving complex problems. Now he and the rest of the Rubicon team enable companies and governments to reduce their waste and manage their recycling. At the same time, they find ways to help their customers save money and meet sustainability goals.
“Waste is a design flaw,” says Morris. “When you generate a lot of waste, something is not working efficiently in your company. It really is an indicator of a demanding business when you have a very lean and efficient recycling operation.”
As a Certified B Corporation, Rubicon is also strengthening its mission to end waste by moving waste away from landfills and protecting the future of the planet. To see how Rubicon is using technology to shrink customers’ dumps and improve their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credentials, I spoke to Morris as part of my research on purpose-built business.
I’m excited to hear the story behind Rubicon – why and how did you start the company?
Nate Morris: Rubicon is truly a passion I have had for public policy and the interface of government and business since my school days, using free market solutions to solve the world’s biggest and longest-standing challenges. And garbage is one of the oldest of them. It goes back to the beginning of civilization and is one of the subjects we don’t want to think about – we just want to keep it out of sight and from our minds.
It is often assumed that making money and doing something good for the environment are mutually exclusive. But I believe we can do both, and the biggest catalyst for environmental change can be business. Where the government has sometimes struggled with solutions to these types of complicated problems, innovative companies have stepped up and found ways to address them. That really got me into dealing with a lot of these wider human problems, and which would ultimately lead me to waste.
Waste tells a story about what we leave behind – a legacy of sorts – and there is a prime opportunity for my generation of entrepreneurs to redefine that category. We have an industry built almost entirely around landfill and burying trash in the ground, and I firmly believed that had to change.
How does Rubicon use technology to make waste reduction more efficient and practical?
Waste is known as the toughest industry in the world, and one with very little transparency about its actual functions and operations.
Very few, if any, people ask questions about their waste. What’s wrong with my waste bill? How much does my recycling cost? How much do I pay each month? It’s kind of out of sight, out of mind. However, thanks to technology, we can take advantage of the ability to be transparent and have real-time information about what is happening to our waste and recycling.
It’s also an industry where companies are passed down through generations, which makes it extremely difficult to get into as a newbie. Now, these previous generations’ relationships are disrupted by sophisticated technology, the application of data and analysis, software products, and a vision for the development of the industry, and ultimately affect the direction in which the environmental movement will go in the future.
Rubicon is a fully digital company; it’s a software business. Our business model provides incentives for other disposal options – something other than burying garbage on the ground. We don’t own trucks. We don’t have any landfills. So our incentives are fundamentally different from the way the industry has operated in the past.
Think about it: if you own the truck, you have to drive it to make your profit. This carries the risk of the account being overloaded, which means that an account that should be picked up five times a week can be picked up seven times a week. We use our software to analyze the millions of locations in our database and adjust the level of service accordingly. Refinements like these can instantly translate into six- or even seven-digit savings, depending on the company. This also leads to less wear and tear on the vehicles and the roads themselves, and ultimately, less travel time. This has an environmental benefit as you also get huge CO2 savings.
The data doesn’t lie and the data we have across the country gives us a good indication of what the right level of service should be and our mapping capabilities will show us the most efficient route. Our CTO tells a great story that in the past a collection route could be dropped off Rubicon for the whole day if the driver preferred Taco Bell to Kentucky Fried Chicken for their lunch break.
But now we can have a more resilient industry that is fairer and more open, supports small business growth, and empowers new entrepreneurs. We are also very excited about the next generation of entrepreneurs who recently joined the space and added diversity to it. There are new minority, veteran, and women-owned carriers joining our network that are more a reflection of America today.
Obviously, waste is a big problem in the E dimension. However, what about your SG reporting business in terms of the S and G dimensions? For example, help companies research gender dynamics and the racial makeup of their workforce, governance issues and the like.
ESG reporting has become a mainstay, and that’s because the free market demands it. We listen to the market and what we hear makes me believe that there is no greater force for environmental change than business itself. The main driver today is companies that say: I have to work with Rubicon on ESG reporting. And if I don’t get Rubicon, I won’t get the information I need to be able to report accurately. You need a credible third party to validate these metrics and benchmarks and examine how they perform better year on year in terms of waste.
I think it is correct to say that waste is a design flaw. If you generate a lot of waste, something is not working efficiently in your company. It really is an indicator of a demanding business when you have a very lean, efficient waste and recycling operation. Our software reveals opportunities for more distraction, which helps increase sales.
We believe that Rubicon’s future will focus on what used to be a must – reporting on recycling and diversion – and becoming a must. An entire generation of consumers are now making purchasing decisions based on the environmental footprint of the companies they spend their money with. They consider what you are doing to compensate for external effects and make sure you are accountable with the materials in place.
What customers and households are looking for today is sophistication in terms of material. They want to know how to reuse this material and how to thrive in the 21st century business climate. Customers today vote with their wallet and use products to do so – they align their dollars with their values.
For this reason we are a B Corp. become. This is how we run our business. This isn’t a nickname we put up or a nice accreditation. B Corp certification has influenced many of our decisions about how we run and grow our business.
Can you give some examples of companies you started working with and how it has helped them?
One of the companies that really helped build Rubicon was Papa John’s Pizza. We went to Papa John’s because it was right in our back yard in Kentucky. I remember walking into the meeting and saying to an executive at the company, “You know, I started this waste company.” And he said, “That’s great. And you know, I have no idea what we’re doing with our trash.
This is often the first conversation you have with executives at many companies. They focus on selling whether it is pizza or groceries or whatever their product or service may be. They don’t usually focus on what to do with their trash.
We have also seen important gains in reverse logistics. With another customer, a national sorts retail chain, we are using a robust reverse logistics program that allows us to retrieve tons and tons of cardboard. When the trucks drop a load instead of emptying the trucks again, we load it with cardboard and send it for recycling. This is an example of how reorganizing the supply chain can create huge revenues and a huge distraction from the landfill. Previously, this box only went to the landfill and was thrown away.
We’ve also partnered with Wegmans grocery chain on their waste-free journey and made progress towards a circular economy by giving a second life to the materials used in the normal course of business. Food waste in particular is a massive problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30-40% of the food supply is wasted annually. It is therefore not surprising that the commitment to zero waste goals in a grocery store is a major challenge that requires sophisticated systems thinking – reviewing supply chains, establishing sustainable purchasing policies, accurately forecasting demand to minimize spoilage, and managing what is in operation generated waste. Our program with Wegman aims to cut food waste in half by 2030.
During our partnership, we also worked with Wegman to identify opportunities for reuse, remanufacturing and recycling of a wide variety of materials, including non-food products. For example, we recycled thousands of pounds of granite countertop and found a secondary use for seafood containers and baking racks. We have also developed a program to recycle kitchen oil and fat and convert meat products into biofuels. Each solution brings Wegmans closer to its zero waste goal.