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  • Nate Morris

Smarter Trash Trucks for Cleaner Cities

We tend to think of our trash as something that needs to be hauled away. After all, that is how it has been done since the time of the Romans — trash was collected and hauled somewhere out of the way, like a landfill. The Romans even recycled a little, as we do.

That is an outdated business model and one that we have made a business out of changing, bringing cutting-edge software and technology to the waste and recycling industry. And our company, Rubicon®, has reached an important new milestone in that effort, partnering with major Texas cities to drive that change, literally and figuratively. 

We spend much time on municipal waste, studying and improving what happens after emptying the bins. We ask ourselves what we can do to make trash collection more efficient and responsive to residents. We can utilize technology to improve how things have been done over the past 2,000 years and deliver better outcomes for society than simply burying our problems.

The core proposition: What if our trash trucks could pump benefits back into the city instead of simply hauling away waste, saving money while enhancing services? That is what is now happening with partnerships Rubicon has launched with the Cities of San Antonio and Houston, making these municipalities the latest members of the RUBICONSmartCity™ program

Imagine a world where waste material costs less to throw away and gets adequately discarded, sorted, and reused when possible. Imagine that the trash truck does more than collect trash and collects data — meaningful information about how your city is functioning, where it needs help, and what resources need to be deployed.

The good news is you don't have to imagine that any longer. With technology designed to help municipal leaders make better decisions and create better environmental and financial outcomes for their cities, Houston is on the cutting edge in making ordinary trash trucks obsolete.

This will be done in three ways: by improving materials collection, enhancing the collection of recyclable materials and reducing recyclable contamination, and turning trash trucks into vehicles capable of providing critical infrastructure assessment. We are turning the humble trash truck into a 21st Century municipal problem-solver and doing it with a minimal investment in software and hardware.

The result is the potential to save millions of tax dollars annually and help deliver a cleaner, more attractive city that can enhance the quality of life and advance economic development efforts.

As far as collecting waste material, missed collections are one of the biggest drains on city resources. They cause dispatchers to have to send another truck for one or two specific loads, creating a new, inefficient route for a handful of customers. This increases emissions and inefficiency and can be avoided by better routing software that optimizes trash truck routes, allowing for a better allocation of resources and an overall improvement of material collection.

Ultimately, better waste collection improves the desirability of cities as a place to live and work, making them more economically competitive and enhancing the quality of life by removing waste material from public spaces. Less material waiting to be picked up can also mean less litter blowing from overflowing bins, reducing the need to dispatch special patrols to police litter on the streets and in public spaces.

Reinventing garbage collection is about more than just trash collection, however. Rubicon's municipal partnerships aim to reduce the amount of material sent to landfills by improving recycling programs. Many cities struggle with the contamination of recyclables. This happens when food or other non-recyclable items — such as a pizza box with a slice still in it or a plastic bag — get mixed into curbside recycling bins with materials that can be recycled.

We continue to develop artificial intelligence models that capture images and automatically flag material that might contaminate a load, all without driver interaction. In other words, getting a cleaner mix of materials can ensure that more material gets recycled rather than sent to the landfill.

To date, our successes in cities across the United States have been measurable. When RUBICONSmartCity was utilized in Kansas City, Mo. — which is about five times smaller than Houston's population — the city reported $2 million in annual savings to taxpayers in waste and recycling collection costs. At the same time, it expanded solid waste and recycling capabilities to 160,000 residences from 60,000 before the program was adopted, all while achieving a nearly 20% improvement in citizen satisfaction with solid waste services.

What changes the game, though, is the trash truck itself. Armed with sensors, cameras, and networking technology, garbage collectors become data collectors. A trash truck is one of the few vehicles that roll up and down every street in the city weekly. They see everything from missed or overflowing trash bins to potholes, graffiti, abandoned houses, or broken curbs. This information can be routed to the appropriate city departments to help make repairs and cleanups more quickly.

With these partnerships, Texas cities have become leaders in the national effort to find meaningful and realistic cutting-edge solutions in waste, recycling, and municipal efficiency. We are proud to be with them in the driver's seat and commend them for their leadership.

(Nate Morris is the Chairman & CEO of Rubicon, a software and technology driven player in the waste and recycling industry.)


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