- A judge in Harris County, TX granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) on Sept. 27 that requires Waste Connections to remove its containers from the parking lot of a Houston shopping center within 72 hours. The Sterling Plaza Merchant Association (SPMA) chose to switch to Rubicon Global, with service provided by OP Enterprise Waste Services.
- Rubicon signed a contract with SPMA in late June and wrote a letter notifying Waste Connections of this in July. According to Rubicon, Waste Connections was given until Aug. 6 to remove its four containers. When that didn't happen, Rubicon had them towed on Aug. 11. Yet on Aug. 23 it was discovered that these containers were returned and placed directly in front of the OP Enterprise containers.
- Following this, Rubicon filed a request for a TRO and a temporary injunction from further action on SPMA's property. The company is also seeking a permanent injunction and an unspecified amount of damages. A hearing on the temporary injunction request has been set for Oct. 6.
The details of this particular case are similar to how the two companies have been competing around the country. Rubicon typically convinces a customer to make the switch for lower prices, offers to pay any liquidated damages from terminating a contract with their existing service provider and sometimes ends up towing that provider's container. This often involves claims of miscommunication and disputes over the appropriate amount of time that a container should be allowed to sit on site. The SPMA case adds a new wrinkle to the pattern because Waste Connections brought their containers back to essentially block the Rubicon-managed containers.
While this particular case may be decided next month, two larger cases about how this is playing out around Texas are expected to take a little longer. Following complaints of container towing at an estimated 40 sites in the Houston area, Waste Connections is seeking a permanent injunction against Rubicon that could have statewide implications. A similar case is also being pursued for containers collected by its subsidiary, Progressive Waste Solutions. Waste Connections hopes to achieve the same results as it did with a June decision in Louisiana state court that granted a statewide injunction against Rubicon from towing any containers for 14 days after all outstanding payments had been made for an account.
In addition to these various container lawsuits, the two companies have also engaged in litigation over alleged contract interference in Missouri and alleged theft of trade secrets after Rubicon hired a former Waste Connections employee. That employee, slated to be Rubicon's national director of outside sales, has since been terminated. Rubicon's latest counterclaim for the SPMA case described all of this as a "campaign of harassment." While Waste Connections has been the most active on this front, Rubicon also feels that Waste Management and Republic Services — collectively described as "the big three" — are also taking competitive steps to slow its growth. The company claims that its continued accumulation of small business customers has heightened that competition.
The leaders of the industry's three largest companies have been publicly dismissive about Rubicon's role as anything more than a broker because they don't have physical equipment, rely on other companies to provide service and still send some material to landfills or waste-to-energy facilities. Rubicon eschews this broker characterization, instead describing itself as a technology platform and a provider of waste management consulting services.
While this debate came to a head during multiple panel interviews at WasteExpo in May, Rubicon CEO Nate Morris took a more measured approach at WASTECON earlier this week. Aside from one mention of industry control being "held in the hands of the few for generations," Morris made no direct mention of his larger competitors, saying he had "great respect" for all involved and that “it’s not about disrupting an industry, but instead it’s about working with each of you to evolve and make this industry better." It remains to be seen whether this is the sign of a new approach after months of litigation — and questions about their fundraising numbers — or just a decision to be less publicly provocative. In the short term, Rubicon is hailing this Texas TRO as a victory.