In the hope of improving their trash collection and recycling rates, three U.S. cities are testing a new cloud-based platform, app and dashboards from a Georgia-based company that until recently was focused on the private sector.
Atlanta-based Rubicon Global, which has clients nationwide, in Canada and 18 other countries, has signed Atlanta and Columbus, Ga.; and Santa Fe, N.M. to free, six-month pilots that includes access to its cloud-based platform hosted by Amazon Web Services; customized dashboards with graphics, daily updates on what residents are throwing away and where; and iPhones for trash truck drivers loaded with their app.
This sensitive app can track a driver's progress through more than 13 triggers including GPS, hydraulics, truck speed, sound and vibration along a collection route.
“We’re powering garbage trucks to be the eyes and ears of cities. Garbage trucks should be rolling data centers,” Michael Allegretti, its head of public policy, told Government Technology, adding that there are no sensors.
At the start of each shift, drivers log into the app, which automatically “learns” the route as they drive. The only time a driver must manually use the app is to enter a code for one of six “exceptions,” such as a bin that’s blocked, broken, not out, or which contains contaminated recycling.
Eye on Rubicon
Rubicon Global, founded in 2009 by Nate Morris and Marc Spiegel in Louisville, Ky., has previously helped name-brand private clients including Dollar General and 7-Eleven; New York-based Wegmans Food Markets Inc., and thousands of small businesses reduce and recycle what they throw away and save on waste costs.
A January profile in Forbes magazine pointed out that the company may be new to the municipal sector, but its virtual architecture makes it "the Uber of trash." (A recent $50 million investment, staff writer Alex Konrad said, brings the company's valuation to an estimated $800 million.)
Rubicon’s environmental goal is to eradicate landfills. But as the company has pivoted its platform to cities and residential waste collection, Michael Allegretti, its head of public policy, told Government Technology that it has realized the smart city potential in a sensitive app that can track their progress through more than 13 triggers including GPS, hydraulics, truck speed, sound and vibration along a collection route.
In Atlanta, Rubicon realized trash bins that hadn’t been put out could indicate abandoned buildings.
“Here we discovered ‘Let’s start indexing for abandoned homes.’ ‘Let’s start indexing for graffiti,” he said. “In other cities, we’re having conversations about potholes, street lights that aren’t working, ambient noise.”
From Santa Fe, the oldest state capital, to Columbus — spread across more than 200 square miles — to Atlanta, where a fire March 30 collapsed a section of Interstate 85 creating an unprecedented roadblock, each jurisdiction has unique ideas of how Rubicon can get its trash and recycling issues sorted and move it closer to becoming a smart city.
Atlanta, which began its pilot in December and finishes it in June, was Rubicon’s first municipal pilot. The city divides its waste and recyclables collection with the private sector. Atlanta focuses on trash pickup, which is handled by its public works department.
Nearly 100 city trucks collect trash from about 96,000 households – but only from single-family residences and smaller multi-family residences. Trash from businesses and multiple-family residences such as apartment buildings is picked up by private haulers. So is recyclables.
Atlanta has single-stream recycling, but while recyclables from single-family residences and smaller multi-family residences are picked up by city trucks, they’re recycled at a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) operated by Pratt Industries. Recycling from large multi-family residences is completely handled by private haulers.
Currently only around 20 percent of households recycle — and until its six-month contract with Pratt began in January, Atlanta was showing a negative return on recycling, which it provided to citizens as a public service. That has since transformed into a “modest rebate,” said Stephanie E. Stuckey, the city’s chief resilience officer.
The city doesn’t have any open landfills, and so it pays to dump trash in private facilities. Atlanta’s desire to reduce the amount of trash generated, increase participation in recycling and enhance the quality of what gets recycled were all factors in its decision to begin the Rubicon pilot.
Stuckey said Atlanta had been aware of Rubicon — which is based in the city — for some time before committing to the pilot.
“We jumped on the chance because what we’re currently monitoring is the aggregate. How much we were diverting overall. But to have a strong strategic recycling program you need to understand which households are recycling and which households are not recycling,” Stuckey said. “You have to hone down to the individual residence level, which Rubicon is able to do.”
Through its app, drivers can also document recycling bins that are contaminated with, for example, plastic bags — and can even alert residents. That’s another big plus for the city, which could run the risk of contaminating an entire recycling haul with bins that are tainted.
Atlanta wants to educate residents about recycling – not to shame or to fine those with contaminated recycling, Stuckey said – noting that education is one way to increase recycling rates.
While the city is aware of the smart city potential in Rubicon’s technology, the extent to which it might make use of that capability is still unclear. Stuckey said Atlanta is waiting until the data generated by its pilot — which doesn’t wrap until June — is complete. One likely direction is using that data to improve residential recycling rates.
“I think there is room for a potential expansion. We wanted to test the results of the pilot and then go from there,” Stuckey said.
In Columbus, which began its pilot earlier this month, waste collection is also done through public works. The city has three active landfills, opened a state-of-the-art recycling facility, the Columbus Recycling and Sustainability Center, in 2013; and visits roughly 56,500 households four times a week to pick up various types of trash and recyclables.
The city grinds and composts greenwaste, diverts about 21 percent of its total waste, and has extended the life of its Pine Grove Landfill 11 years by increased recycling and better compaction methods, staggering the way mattresses — which can be problematic to compact — are placed. It earns more than $600,000 annually from recyclables.
Like other municipalities, Columbus has its own budgetary constraints — but is leery of raising the $17 per household per month collection fee that Public Works Director Pat Biegler said is “probably the lowest in the state.”
In an effort to improve its efficiency and diversion rates, officials accepted when Rubicon approached them about a pilot. Columbus plans to install the system on May 3, teach employees how to use it the following week, and roll it out to the first two fleets of waste vehicles by May 15.
“While we’re using RouteSmart … to do some routing, this will also allow us to monitor how much time they’re spending on their routes and allow us to do some fine-tuning to balance out routes for everyone. I am definitely at this point most excited about the efficiencies in there,” Biegler said.
The city will likely use the app and dashboards’ customization potential to help schedule the pickup of residential tree waste, which is done during the off-day for waste collection. Rubicon’s platform should also strengthen Columbus’ legal position in accident claims, letting it more conclusively document the location of waste vehicles.
“This will give us a legal claim that the vehicle hasn’t been in the area so we can reduce some of the risk management claims,” said James Mang, assistant waste management manager.
Santa Fe rolled out its system on April 10 — the latest step toward boosting recycling and landfill diversion rates since adopting automated recycling pickup in 2016, and single-stream recycling in 2015.
Trash and recycling in Santa Fe, a city of roughly 37 square miles, is overseen by the Santa Fe Solid Waste Management Agency, an organization created by the city and Santa Fe County and which they oversee together. But actual collection is handled by the city’s Environmental Services Division.
Shirlene Sitton, the division director, said the diversion rate countywide has risen from 12 percent to 19 percent since the city adopted single-stream recycling — but there’s not a lot of data to help refine that effort and boost diversion rates.
“When I came here, I knew we need to modernize our technology systems. Doing the pilot program came along at the perfect time,” said Sitton, who formerly worked for the city of Denton, Texas. “By working with Rubicon, that allowed us to try out one of the technologies first.”
Later this year, Sitton said Santa Fe will likely release an RFP seeking bids to provide technology for real-time collection tracking, routing assistance, ticket assistance, “… so that we can be ready to move from one thing to another.” Rubicon, she said, is welcome to respond to the RFP.
Sitton said Rubicon’s technology is “exciting” because it could help Santa Fe spend less on “not outs” — incidents when trash trucks must go back to collect trash and recyclables because the city can’t prove containers weren’t out on time.
So is the opportunity to continue modernizing Santa Fe — and “having a success, because it really is a city that’s not on the cutting edge of technology,” she said. “I really want Santa Fe to get some attention for that."
As for the data generated in each of these cities, Rubicon owns it. Once the six-month pilot concludes, the cities must decide whether to pay to continue their service — but Allegretti said officials will have permanent access to their data even if they decide to end the relationship.
Cody Marshall, vice president of technical assistance at national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership, told Government Technology that Rubicon’s technology could make it a vital link between cities and their residents.
“We’re all getting spoiled, me included. Getting spoiled with Amazon and Uber and buying things online and making everything super easy. Residents need that connection also with their city services,” Marshall said. “Specifically what Rubicon is doing is to try to make these cities have the connection.”