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The History of Trash, and are Things Truly Changing?

How did we get here?

Humans have obviously been generating “trash” of some kind throughout history however interesting enough the economy actually used to be much more circular and sustainable than it is today. Typically, if something broke it would be repaired and reused, in fact, it was almost a necessity for societies due to a shortage of materials, and of course the desire to maintain a clean living environment. It wasn’t really until our society started to adopt a mass consumption lifestyle, and in the 1960’s that “Trash” and “Waste” truly started to take form. Trash is waste, and waste is a luxury of spoiled societies who no longer have the desire to truly utilize the full lifecycle of materials.  It exists because we are producing objects that seem deprived of value once they are used. It is made of recently acquired bad habits.

Insert business opportunity HERE

It was from this shift in our society’s lifestyle that the waste management industry truly started to take form. Entrepreneurs that weren’t scared to get their hands dirty (literally) saw an opportunity to make getting rid of your trash easy, and convenient, so you as the waste generator can simply just forget about it. Off went the waste industry as we know it today which is now over a 75 billion dollar business, dominated for the most part by a few big players. To no real fault of their own, waste haulers did a phenomenal job of giving consumers exactly what they wanted. The trash goes away, I don’t have to think about it, and I don’t have to smell it anymore.

What has changed?

I think we can all agree that the mindset of customers is starting to shift. At Sustain, we have talked to hundreds of business over just the last year about waste, and the vast majority of them have are looking for something different, innovative, and don’t want to wait for their waste hauler to catch up. I would attribute that to 3 key, recent trends:

1)Big Data and the Era of Analytics– Yes, not even the waste industry can escape this trend. Our society has rapidly grown accustomed to having data on EVERYTHING, all which drives decisions. From the Fitbit, our thermostats, lights, our eating habits, spending habits, to our dogs standing heart rate, you name it and there is an app for that. Except…for the most part the waste industry has somehow missed out on this trend, and is just starting to catch up. Data drives value, data means efficiency, data provides transparency, data means a collaborative approach to solving industry-wide problems both generators and haulers face.

2) On-Demand Service– The waste industry can thank Amazon for this one, and more recently Lyft & Uber, and any other sharing-economy startup company. Consumers are used to getting services  & goods exactly when they want it, how they want it, fast, and with transparency. For an industry mostly stuck on static routes, no service verification, and outdated billing practices, the waste industry is definitely missing the mark here.

3) Climate Change– This is a big one to unpack. And while unfortunately, politicians have decided to make this a divisive issue, the scientific community agrees that our poor behavior has had significant negative impacts on the environment. If you are blessed enough to have spent even a small amount of time enjoying the outdoors, you may have felt that spark of realization that you were experiencing something special and wild. Our mountains, oceans, rivers, forests, and other wild places need to be protected so that others can share these experiences. To do this, we need to drastically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. This can’t be done with one easy fix. This will be hard. It will require us trying new things and changing some of our most ingrained habits. However, I agree with Elon Musk in that anything to the contrary is the dumbest science experiment in the history of mankind. From a waste industry standpoint, we all know that at some point we need to move away from landfills. Landfills pollute the air, soil, water, and are single-handedly the largest-man made source of methane in the US. It’s time for us all to step up and work together for change.


The disruption is only beginning…but we have a TON of work to do

The change and disruption to the waste industry are coming relatively quickly. But “relatively quick” for a 500 lb gorilla is still pretty slow. Here are a few things you can do to keep things moving in the right direction, faster.

1) Keep up with the “customer is always right” mentality. If you have a desire to be more efficient with your waste and keep trash out of the landfill then eventually the whole industry will follow. There are already SaaS companies, consultants, and waste haulers that can be a great partner. Make a statement about who you work with.

2) Educate yourself and your colleagues on how to handle waste. This might be the biggest challenge ahead of us, changing habits. Recycling and composting don’t have to be so difficult. Contact us for some tips on how to get your behavior modification amped up.

3) Practice what you preach. We tend to focus on the B2B side of trash. However, the waste that we generate in our homes is a huge issue. Take a free tour of your local recycling facility, or look up recycling guidelines for your community online. We promise, figuring out how to recycle won’t be nearly as hard as calculus.

If you are interested in how Sustain is helping change the waste industry, contact us to learn more.


Written By: Andrew Williams

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