Reframing the Debate on Waste and the Environment

There is no waste, just misplaced resources.  

My home state of Kentucky has been under the environmental microscope because coal has been the underpinning of our economy for decades. To Kentuckians, the climate change debate has been scary, posing a threat to their livelihood. To them, it was personal.  Stricter environmental standards meant people lost their jobs.  

But there can be common ground. We can -- and must --  generate better environmental outcomes using free-market solutions, not with the government picking winners and losers. That is what prompted me to say, "We can solve a big environmental challenge like waste."  

The waste industry business model has been unchanged for thousands of years. There is a crying need for fresh ideas and innovative thinking. I believe the industry can improve and that being a conscientious business person and entrepreneur — and a socially conscious person — can have a significant impact.  

That is why I founded Rubicon, to end waste and move the waste industry off of the landfill model at scale.  

Think about it: How big is the investor appetite for companies that want further expansion into the landfill model space, given what we now know about the harm caused by them and the environmental implications. We know that burying our problems is not the future. Landfills have become misplaced resources, necessary to a degree, but we should focus on new, more environmentally palatable solutions. 

We need to invest in recycling plants. Invest in anaerobic digestion for food waste. Attract investors to come here to the United States to move off this model at scale.  

Our landfill capacity is running out around the country, so we have got to move quickly. I think that this is a bipartisan issue that is market-led, where we can get an environmental win as a country and, for once in a long time, really bring a lot of people together on an issue that has been so divisive. 

People tend to associate environmentalists with the left, but I believe the Republican Party had some early movers on the environmental movement, from Teddy Roosevelt to Richard Nixon. Teddy Roosevelt has been a personal hero of mine since I was a kid. I have always loved the environment and never thought that politics had anything to do with it. Preserving our environment is simply the right thing to do. 

We also see a generational shift, where this is not a passive issue for millennials and below. If you do not have an environmental message as a company, I believe you will be left behind. Brands, businesses, and governments recognize this. As the two-party system continues to move forward in our country, both parties have to think about how they will be relevant to this issue. 

We can get a generation of Americans to think differently about the environmental movement and see that it does not have to be only the people in California and New York who get engaged. People from anywhere in the country can get involved, make better environmental choices, and make a big difference, not just the people on the coasts.  

Here in Kentucky, it is rewarding to be able to say to members of my family or to people that I know that work in factories or other tough jobs, "You could be part of this environmental movement. You do not have to have solar panels or drive a Prius to feel like you are part of making a difference in the environment." 

Waste affects us all. We each create it, and we can each make better choices for how to dispose of it. We can reframe how we think about it.  

It is not about saving the environment; it is about reclaiming lost resources. It is about making better, more economical choices. It is about business and independence. It is about American innovation and market-driven solutions to the formidable challenge of waste.   

Together we can end waste and do good for our environment while creating an opportunity in the process.

This article is based on my conversation with James Pethokoukis - Editor, AEIdeas; DeWitt Wallace Fellow and host of Political Economy with James Pethokoukis

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