What do you imagine when you think of a front-line worker? I’d guess that a healthcare worker, a doctor, nurse, or paramedic, comes to mind first; followed, in any order, by a firefighter, a grocery store worker, and even a food delivery person.


While each of these professions rightly deserve this acclaim, I’d like to add another essential profession to the list: sanitation workers — the men and women who are continuing to pick up and dispose of our waste and recycling every day despite the dangers imposed by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes.


For the past three months, sanitation workers across the country have been playing a pivotal role in keeping our lives running during this challenging time, while at the same time helping to safeguard the public health. For so many, their work has taken place in the shadows — late in the evening, but more often in the wee hours of the morning. They are among the unsung heroes of this global crisis. If you consider just how much worse this pandemic would be if our streets were also lined with rotting bags of garbage, it’s clear that our situation would be that much more dire.


Not only are sanitation workers among the most essential workers in our country; they are also working in one of the most dangerous jobs. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, sanitation workers, in this case defined as anyone who gathers and disposes of waste and recycling, work the fifth most dangerous job in the country. With COVID-19, that risk has been elevated even further, as workers face the potential of interacting with items that have come into contact with the disease, such as used personal protective equipment (PPE) including face masks and gloves, as well as used tissues, wipes, or trash bags.


Despite this, sanitation workers are trying to deal with the fallout from the novel coronavirus as best they can — just like the rest of us; but they face an added challenge. As our homes have quickly doubled as our workplaces, our schools, our childcare centers, our restaurants, and even our socially-distant "community" centers, the flow of waste emanating from American households has been nothing short of staggering.


According to David Biderman, executive director and CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), residential waste volume "has increased between 5% to 35%, depending on the location, as Americans have been staying home and generating more trash and recyclables." Put simply, as workers are remaining at home, sanitation workers are being forced to interact with unusually high levels of residential waste.


This sudden and substantial shift in residential waste and recycling volumes is putting pressure on sanitation workers as they are forced to adjust to this increase in workload on residential streets, while commercial and industrial waste and recycling collection have been experiencing an overall reduction. This increase in residential waste and recycling may sound like a simple "like-for-like" swap, as haulers could theoretically switch from servicing commercial and industrial locations to residential homes; but in reality, this process is much more difficult.


Cities throughout the United States need to work on resiliency plans to help them better manage these sudden changes, changes that have often been categorized as shocks and stresses.


Governments need to be able to put strategies in place that will not only protect sanitation workers and residents alike but will also help to improve efficiencies within a city’s Public Works Department and their municipal solid waste and recycling collection fleets as a whole. Only by playing the long game and developing strategies that focus on taxpayer savings will city governments become more nimble, and as importantly, start to develop cash reserves to help manage acute crises like the ones we are facing today. This includes everything from route optimization, to customer service improvements, to preventative maintenance — all with the ultimate goals of reducing costs, creating public service equity, and ultimately, contributing to a better quality of life for city residents.


At Rubicon, a software company born in the waste and recycling industry, our technology can help proactive city governments of all sizes run more efficient, effective, and sustainable operations. Over the last three years we have developed AI and machine learning technology to help cities leverage the power and reach of existing city-owned assets. According to one estimate, our smart city technology has the potential to save US cities up to $208 million over the next 10 years through reduced waste disposal costs, optimized fleets, and other metrics.


Rubicon’s technology is offered to forward-thinking local governments (over 50 to date) for free as part of a national co-innovation pilot partnership program. With cities across the United States now more than ever needing to improve their waste and recycling operations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I encourage cities to work with Rubicon to anticipate the needs of their residents before they call, to uncover cost-savings through technology before a budget deficit arrives, and to create more resilient city neighborhoods.


Michael Allegretti is chief strategy officer at Rubicon, a software company that provides a suite of SaaS products for waste, recycling, and smart city solutions. You can contact Michael at michael.allegretti@rubicon.com.