Outlook 2012: Everyone else’s trash is treasure for waste haulers

Christopher Stekeur has found there's never really a shortage of garbage to be hauled.

Christopher Stekeur has found there’s never really a shortage of garbage to be hauled.

The third-generation owner of Advantage Disposal has watched his small waste removal business boom lately, even as his big corporate competitors continue to consolidate operations around the Capital Region. Every time they get larger, Stekeur finds himself with a few more customers.

“They like dealing with a local company,” he said of his customers. “People like to go with the local hauler.”

Especially a local hauler that can offer some of the same amenities as the big guys. Last year, the Rotterdam-based Advantage Disposal invested more than $80,000 to bring single-stream recycling to its roughly 2,000 customers in western Schenectady County.

Advantage Disposal bought new roll-off containers for all of its customers, complete with diagrams that show what items can be recycled. The company also purchased a new truck that is configured to haul single-stream refuse.

And now Stekeur is considering expanding his small workforce of about a dozen. That’s in part due to the appeal of his company’s environmentally friendly approach toward trash collection.

“We’re taking on so much more recycling than we did before, when people had to separate it themselves,” he said.

Advantage Disposal’s shift to single-stream mirrors a transformation of the industry’s business model from consumption to recovery. The days of hauling trash to be buried in landfills is over, and the businesses that will succeed are the ones that can recover resources from the garbage they haul away each day.

“The world is facing resource shortage,” said Joe Fusco, a spokesman for the Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems. “The businesses who solve that problem are going to create value for themselves and for their communities.”

And also a number of jobs that didn’t previously exist. For Casella, that means everything from workers to oversee environmental programs to engineers adept at harnessing methane gas from landfills.

“We have job categories that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” he said.

Annually, the waste industry hauls away 243 million tons of household and other municipal solid waste, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. This figure balloons to 545 million tons each year when construction and demolition waste and non-hazardous industrial waste is included.

To illustrate this amount of garbage, it’s enough to equal the weight of 2.3 million Boeing 747 jumbo jets. Were this waste loaded into standard garbage trucks parked in a line, they would stretch from New York City to Los Angeles more than 100 times.

But the industry that was once aimed at moving this waste from households and Dumpsters to landfills has evolved markedly with the proliferation of recycling. Today’s waste industry is focused on squeezing profit from curbside refuse.

Often, this means investing a lot of money into facilities aimed at getting more customers to recycle. County Waste and Recycling — a subsidiary of the California-based Waste Connections and one of the Capital Region’s largest haulers — invested $12 million in building a single-stream recycling center at the Port of Albany.

The new center was the third phase of a $27 million investment the company made to bring zero-sort recycling to the area. It can process 600 tons of recyclable material daily, putting it in the top 20 percent of recycling facilities in the nation.

County Waste now employs more than 400 workers in the region and earns annual revenue of about $120 million. The company took over running the Colonie town landfill this year in exchange for a $23 million up-front payment, $3.1 million per year for the first five years and $1.1 million per year for the subsequent 20 years.

But the subsidiary is dwarfed by Casella, which operates primarily in New England. Casella now employs more than 1,800 workers and takes in roughly $500 million a year in revenue.

Fusco said his company has entire divisions devoted to monitoring trends in resource recovery. He said the Casella workforce is marked by its ability to adapt quickly with the times.

In a sense, Fusco said today’s waste removal worker needs to be able to see the big picture and learn quickly. Oftentimes, he said his company is hiring educated workers or seeking higher training for ones who show an ability to learn quickly.

“[The industry] requires a more sophisticated person both technologically and from an ability to understand the big picture of what’s happening in the world,” he said.

Categories: Business

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