Look at that Trash
What if I told you pizza boxes weren’t recyclable?
Or that even though nearly every American supports recycling, 28 billion glass bottles and jars go to landfills every year where they can take 4,000 years or more to decompose?
I learned all of this from the front seat of a garbage truck on a cold morning in Pittsburgh, PA. I was investigating a new company, one that claimed to be taking on the waste industry titans — the Waste Management, Inc’s and Stericycle's. For years these billion-dollar, publicly traded companies have had a stronghold on the business of trash. And Pittsburgh-based Roadrunner Recycling was trying to change that. So, I got into my best Mike Rowe from Dirty Jobs outfit and hopped into a truck with a driver named Dan. He took me for a ride through the recycling system—and exposed how we can change it for the future.
The Evolution (and Consequence) of Wishcycling
Oftentimes we throw a soiled soup can or a box with styrofoam packing peanuts into the recycling bin and say we’ve done our part. This process — where we think our non-sorted items will get sorted — is known as wishcycling.
“Many people just hope that waste management is an industry that's doing the right thing,” says Graham Rihn, founder and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Roadrunner Recycling. “But there's this unfortunate truth as you get into it, that that’s absolutely not taking place.”
Historically, the United States and many other countries sold single-stream (think paper, glass, etc. all in one bin) recycling — including soiled items — to China. But in 2018, China said “no more” due in large part to the strain the sorting caused at its processing facilities and the aftermath of the sorting — extra landfill that China wasn’t even creating.
In the year following the Chinese ban, imports of recyclables like plastic to the country decreased 99%. All of this left places like the United States to figure out its own sorting issues, where most waste companies take in single stream recycling bins with contaminated waste. Because of the labor costs of sorting (and the ability for large waste management companies to make a profit off of landfill loads) wishcycling continues to be common practice today.
“Without the ability to sell single stream recyclables to China, the entire system that was profitable and working for many waste systems is now broken,” says Rihn. “It doesn’t make money. So, when it stopped making money, these public companies completely discouraged recycling to their customers [or stopped offering it all together] and all of this material flowed back to the landfill.”
Sorting at the Source—Single Stream, FTW
During my ride-along I got to see firsthand how broken the system is. Most businesses pay rent to have a large single-stream recycling bin in their parking lot or the alley out back—perpetuating the wishcycling problem, unbeknownst to many organizations. Rihn’s idea was to replace these big bins with three smaller bins that allow for companies to sort their recyclables at the source.
With a little education about what is considered soiled (like those pizza boxes) and what isn’t, most companies make the switch to self sorting rather easily, taking away the labor costs at a sorting facility.
Today, Roadrunner primarily works with businesses with the hope to expand to residential recycling in the future. The focus on business is twofold: first, businesses generate a lot of waste and second, companies are more mission-driven than ever before — an important entry point for Roadrunner.
“We've gotten a ton of lift in the last two to three years from a renewed focus from businesses on sustainability, transparency and surety — to do things the right way and be able to report on it,” says Rihn. “That's driven waste and recycling from being a bit of an afterthought for most businesses to a c-suite issue.”
Gigging the Garbage
I rode around with Dan all day. In between conversations, he checked the Roadrunner app to see where his next pick-up was. On this day, he was primarily hauling paper, so we went straight to the paper recycling plant after he had a full load for drop off — sorting at the source in action!
Dan doesn’t work for Roadrunner, he’s a gig worker — another cost-effective way to change the way waste management works. And it’s good for the gig-workers too: Dan told me he made six figures hauling as a gig worker through Roadrunner last year. Before that, his truck was generally sitting around, costing him more money than it was making him.
Rihn, who’s been working on green issues since the 2010s — first at a building company where he analyzed building utilities and then as the co-founder of a waste company — saw the opportunity to leverage gig workers to streamline operations and cut down on overhead costs.
It turns out, there are many eager truck owners like Dan waiting between things like furniture deliveries and moves, with an empty truck ready for hauling. Roadrunner’s application aligns workers with pick up routes based on their proximity and the size of their truck. Some small hauling companies have actually been able to expand their fleets thanks to Roadrunner — and Dan now relies solely on Roadrunner for his income.
“I think the gut reaction to why recycling doesn't work today is people will say, ‘It doesn't make economical sense,’" says Rihn. “But the irony of that statement is the reason it doesn't make economical sense, is because the solid waste companies tell you that. So, they drive the narrative in the industry. That brought me to, how can I rework the cost curve in waste to recycling?”
To unlock the value of recycling, Roadrunner created a system where it doesn’t own much of what the behemoths do (and what they claim to be so costly) — the trucks, the materials recovery facility and the landfill. For Rihn, the alignment of his motivation to disrupt the industry, coupled with the company’s mission to better the environment while helping people find consistent work is where he sees Roadrunner’s differentiation.
And after my day in Pittsburgh, I was convinced — albeit a little smelly.