Garbage is the Ultimate Big Data

Trash is usually the last thing people want to consider. You bag it up, walk it to the curb, and then, as far as you are concerned, it is gone. Someone comes to pick it up, and, as far as you are concerned, that is the end of it.

That is far from the case, though. Your trash lives on long after you are through with it, and in its second life, after being your garbage, it becomes a storyteller.

As soon as your trash leaves your house, it starts to tell its tale; beginning with how much of it exists. This tells your local waste hauler how often to come to pick up and with what sized container. How many houses are on your street? Do you live in a mainly residential or mixed-zone community? Your garbage influences decisions made by haulers and landfill companies about timing, equipment, and all of the logistics that go into making sure the trash does not pile up in the street.

After it is picked up, your trash continues its journey. Most of it will go to a landfill, just as it has for thousands of years. Since the time of the Romans, humans have carted away trash and buried it in landfills. The Romans even recycled some of that garbage.

When archaeologists look to understand past civilizations, they look at the landfills more often than not. Who ate what, and when? What kinds of things did they throw away, and where? Because trash from many different people and groups tends to be buried in the same landfill, it becomes concentrated and preserved. You can understand a lot about people by looking at what they threw away. What did they value? What did they consider trash? How much and what kinds of things did they eat?

Today our trash tells that same story and more. What you throw away can tell someone almost everything they need to know about how you live your life. Your garbage knows everything about you: where you bank, where you shop, and even what you had for dinner. Your trash can tell your whole life story.

There is a great scene in the movie “Sneakers” where a group of people wants to find a way into a man’s life, and they look through his trash to learn what he likes and does not. Real-life detectives do this too. Trash is often used to gather evidence, even DNA, in what police call “trash pulls.”

The police are not the only ones going through your trash, however. Identity thieves love trash. Identity theft does not only happen online; it can happen at the curb or in the landfill. Scammers comb through your trash to steal your identity. This makes it critical to ensure the things you throw away do not have your identifying information on them. Use a shredder to destroy sensitive documents or anything with your bank account numbers or Social Security number on them. Remove labels from boxes you put in recycling. Be careful with what you throw away because you never know where it might end up.

Valuable demographic data can be gleaned from what people throw away. We can analyze trash in landfills to determine which neighborhoods or municipalities people are throwing away certain things or what products are most popular in certain areas. We can even tell where people are effectively using recycling services or if recyclables are getting thrown in the wrong bins.

Utilizing smart waste receptacles, we can tell when a receptacle is full or needs emptying or what types of garbage is being thrown out where. Imagine using smart receptacles in an airport to determine how far away from restaurants and services their garbage is thrown away. Planners could use this data to determine more appropriate placement for services or locations for future expansion. 

By putting smart technology on the trash truck, we can tell which dumpsters are being emptied before they are full or what kinds of trash are being thrown away. This allows us to tailor services directly to a customer’s needs, helping them save money and reduce waste.  

Trash tells a story, and for most of us, that story is we have a long way to go toward ending waste. At Rubicon, we work hard to divert trash away from landfills to recycling and apply data to how trash is collected to deliver better outcomes for society. 


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