July 09, 2018
Celia Wan is an intern for Crunchbase News.
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It’s trendy nowadays to track our heart rate, running routes, and calorie intake. So it should come as no surprise that our garbage can be tracked, monitored, and managed by software in the same way.

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As antique as it is, the garbage business is a lucrative market. According to a study from Report Buyer, the global waste management industry is valued at $285 billion in 2016 and will reach $435 billion by 2023. Another report from Navigant Research shows that the global market for smart waste collection technologies will expand from $57.6 million in 2016 to over $223 million in 2025.

With an eye towards the money, tech startups are looking into bringing waste management up to the tech world’s speed. And VCs are right behind them.

Your Trash Is A VC’s Treasure

According to Crunchbase data, venture investment in waste management companies in the United States has waxed and waned. From 2011 to 2014, funding remained relatively flat with a dip in 2014; however, the number of deals increased, implying that VCs had a taste for some more early-stage firms in the space.

However, 2015 witnessed a surge in funding due to a $32 million Series A and a $52 million Series B for Rubicon Global, a waste management platform that connect trash haulers with businesses. Funding spiked again in 2016 due to a $280 million Series E raised by Advanced Disposal. It went public the same year.

So far this year, over $130 million has been invested into the waste management market, equal to all of last year. Three late-stage venture deals have bolstered 2018 total funding amounts. Rubicon Global scored another $65 million in a Series E; Organica Water, a wastewater recycling company, raised a $21 million Series D; and an organic waste management company WISErg Corporation raised $19 million.

VC interest in the waste management business has even produced a unicorn.

A Unicorn For Garbage

Rubicon Global is the first tech unicorn in the garbage business. The Atlanta-based company was valued at over $1 billion last August after announcing a $50 million Series E.

Rubicon describes itself as the “Uber of Trash,” a name that refers to the fact that it does not own any waste disposal sites or trucks—just like Uber does not own any cars. Instead, Rubicon allows business owners to connect with local haulers to schedule trash pick-ups in an ad hoc fashion. For haulers, Rubicon’s software promises to provide optimized pick-up routes, automated pick-up confirmations, and real-time vehicle tracking for fleet management.

Talks of Rubicon going public have been swirling around since 2015, but the company has not made any formal announcement. However, in the May 2018 Series E press release, Mark Fennell, the NZ Super Fund’s acting Chief Investment Officer, did confirm that Rubicon is at a “pre-IPO” stage.

Although Rubicon seems to be enjoying tailwinds, there are concerns about its stated growth and technology. According to Bloomberg, the company’s CEO Nate Morris claimed to Fortune a “significantly higher rates of growth and the number of locations Rubicon was serving” than in a presentation to investors around the same time. Its internal software also crashed in 2014 leading to a loss of three big national clients. Rubicon declined Crunchbase News’s request for comment.

Besides the unicorn, several other startups are also finding their own niches in the waste management business.

When Should The Trash Be Taken Out?

One of the challenges in garbage collection is to determine the frequency of trash pick-ups. Traditionally this task is done by estimating the waste generation rate at a waste audit. Haulers also have to manually go through all dumpsters to see how full each container there is. However, waste management startup Compology is trying to change with its image sensors that can be installed in dumpsters.

According to Reza Kashani, Compology’s Head of Marketing, the sensors will tell both haulers and waste generators how full a garbage container is, if the container has been emptied, and where the container is located.

Compology just raised an $11 million Series B in April this year. Kashani noted that the company has sold “nearly 15,000 sensors across 38 states and four Canadian provinces.”

But knowing where your garbage is at isn’t stopping the tide of waste entering our landfills.

Sustainability Over Landfills

For many traditional waste management businesses, landfills are still the primary choice for waste disposal. According to a 2016 EPA report, only 34.6% of the 258 million tons of solid waste produced was recycled.

Recycle Track Systems CEO Gregory Lettieri noted in an interview with TechCrunch that startups with more environmentally conscious practices have a new edge in the old waste management market.

“It matters a lot to high sustainability customers, who want to know that their efforts to separate out food waste isn’t [a squandered effort],” he said.

Rubicon Global claims to provide a “waste stream solution” to its customers for sorting and recycling trash. It also brands itself as the provider of smart city solutions. However, as the company keeps expanding, worries ensue that the less profitable recycling option may not be the company’s priority. No information can be found on Rubicon’s waste diversion rate either, which measures the amount of waste that Rubicon helps diverged from landfill to recycling or compost.

With its image sensors, Compology also recognizes the sustainability potential of its technology. According to Kashani, the company tries to clean up recycling streams at the point of waste collection. Images captured by sensors provide information on the content of each dumpster, which informs waste generators of their recycling practices and helps them make better recycling decisions. The company, however, does not disclose its waste diversion rate either.

Regardless, hopefully these startups and the VCs who fund them will contribute to decreasing the environmental footprint waste leaves behind.