The dollars and sense behind Aspen’s trash
ASPEN Chances are likely that your garbage becomes an afterthought the second you bring the can to the end of the driveway just like you expect electricity to illuminate your living room with the flip of a light switch.But the inner workings of the trash business are far more complex and competitive than one would expect; its not as simple as picking up trash and hauling it to the landfill.Once the layers are peeled back, the underbelly of Aspens trash business has as many moving parts as it does pieces of garbage, haulers say.Trash is interesting because its the last thing you think about, said Wally Graham, owner of Waste Solutions, adding he often finds himself explaining to customers all the factors that are calculated in their rates.In Pitkin County, each person generates 1.5 tons of household trash a year, or 8.16 pounds per person per day, according to solid waste manager Chris Hoofnagle. Thats more than double the Environmental Protection Agencys estimation that the average American produces about 4.4 pounds of garbage a day.Of course, its not just Pitkin Countys estimated 14,700 residents who produce all of the trash; tourists and second homeowners contribute to that inflated number, which fluctuates during the high seasons.
There are five trash hauling companies that dominate the market in the Roaring Fork Valley, creating fierce competition to attract and retain customers. But the cutthroat competition doesnt necessarily translate into lower rates for consumers. Thats because the cost of doing business is enormous, according to company representatives.Tipping fees, which is the cost of dumping a truckload at the Pitkin County Solid Waste Center, account for 35 percent of Waste Solutions expenses and another 40 percent goes to labor, Graham said. Hoofnagle said the fee will increase to $52 a ton starting April 1.For Waste Solutions, that translates into about $600 for each dump, and several trucks unload daily. In the last couple of years, tipping fees have increased 27 percent, Graham said. Hoofnagle said haulers have been informed of the latest increase.[The increase] is mostly just keeping up with the times, Hoofnagle said. Its just business.Bill Maupin, a Denver-based senior district manager for Waste Management, said the companys largest overhead costs are its investment in people and safety.We spend a lot of money on the front end to keep it safe, he said, adding trash haulers go through extensive training and physicals, and are screened for drug and alcohol use, as well as moving violations.Equipment is equally expensive trucks have back-up alarms, cameras, and go through extensive maintenance with parts regularly replaced. Maupin noted that the price for fluids has increased substantially, further affecting the bottom line.Work opportunities in natural gas drilling along the I-70 corridor have driven up wages for garbage haulers. Drivers used to make about $16 an hour but now command between $20 and $25 an hour, Graham said.
For consumers, the bottom line in picking a trash hauler appears to be pricing. But haulers say its much more than that they pitch their companies based on driver safety, customer service, community involvement, specialized offerings and loyalty.If you start a company with a low rate, they quickly realize the overhead is costly, Maupin said, adding the Houston-based company doesnt undercut the competition with lower rates. We dont gouge anyone on pricing … We try not to play that game. I think we have value added.He pointed to a program he started on the Front Range that will soon be offered in the Roaring Fork Valley called Waste Watch. It involves drivers looking out for residents on their routes. In Denver, a trash hauler witnessed the kidnapping of a women at knife point. He called dispatch, who then called police and the two kidnappers were apprehended. In another instance, a 3-year-old boy was found on the side of the road at 3 a.m.; he was returned safely to his parents after a driver called police.Sometimes we are first responders, Maupin said.Graham believes his 18-year presence in the recycling business and five years as a trash hauler in the Roaring Fork Valley sets him apart from the others. He said his trash hauling operation has grown between 40 and 50 percent in recent years. Graham estimates he has more than 5,000 residential and commercial customers in the Roaring Fork Valley, who use either his recycling or trash services.Its because we offer personalized service and all of the money goes back into the valley, he said, adding that being headquarted in Carbondale has its upside because customers can talk to a local company representative. People love our phone and to me, thats a big selling point.From 2000 to 2005, Graham said his trash business made no money. It wasnt until recently that he was able to break even, and last year Waste Solutions realized a 10 percent net profit margin.Graham said because many commercial customers are locked into lengthy contracts with other haulers sometimes unknowingly its been difficult to gain marketshare.No one reads their contracts, he said, adding he works with commercial customers on the length of their contracts and prefers a 36-month commitment but we dont require them.Other companies do, however, which effectively lock businesses into rates and other stipulations that can they cant get out of for years.Its a hard sell, Graham said.Despite entering a market dominated by Waste Management, a multibillion dollar corporation, Graham has been able to capture between 20 and 30 percent of the market in residential trash pickup in Aspen. Waste Solutions continues to have a strong foothold in the commercial recycling sector in Aspens downtown core.Waste Management is in Aspen every day picking up co-mingled recycling, cardboard and trash, according to route manager Jeremy Frees. He estimated that Waste Management has 3,000 commercial customers from Aspen to Parachute, and 6,000 residential customers. It runs local operations out of a Carbondale office.Rocky Mountain Disposal, V.I.P. Trash and Aspen Trash are the other haulers who serve the area.Aspen Trash is a family-owned and operated business designed to fill a niche in the market by offering drive-in service. Robert and Debra Kennedy have between 300 and 400 residential accounts a customer list created by word of mouth over the last two years theyve been in business.It really doesnt have anything to do with money but customer service, Debra said. If they call, they know they are going to talk to a live person.
Waste Solutions handles Aspens largest special events like Jazz Aspen Snowmass, the Food & Wine Classic and most recently, the X Games.Graham personally works at the site, overseeing his crews and hauling out recyclables. Waste Solutions hauled away recyclables left by a collective crowd of 58,000 people over the four-day event producing the same amount that a small town would.All of Silt fills that truck, Graham said of how much was diverted from the Buttermilk venue.Jazz Aspens Labor Day Festival is by far Grahams largest job, especially if the lineup attracts big crowds. He noted that his crews handpicked the recyclables off the field left by Widespread Panic fans when the Georgia-based band played.You put Widespread Panic back to back and youve got a lot, Graham said. Were willing to do it for the public image.Graham noted that the X Games generated 30 percent less trash this year than the year before and had close to a 40 percent recycling return.Every year theyve gotten better, he said.
Both Waste Management and Waste Solutions have seen a significant drop off in trash collection from construction job sites.Were dealing with the economic storm and its trickling down to construction, Frees said.Graham estimates roll-off business has dropped 30 percent over the last year. Its a significant portion of Waste Solutions business Graham estimates hauling construction debris away from job sites accounts for half of the companys revenue.But the recycling business continues to boom, thanks to local governments progressive approaches. People are more conscious of recycling here, Frees said.
Its a fierce market and the rates are low anyway, said Graham, explaining that in the late 1990s and early 2000, small trash hauling companies were beefing up their revenue numbers by taking on as many customers as possible, no matter how low the rate, in preparation to sell to bigger corporations.Before Waste Management bought BFI, the competition between the two companies kept recycling and trash rates low. At the time, Graham saw an opportunity to expand his services.Today, he has a fleet of 15 trucks and 27 employees.I came to Aspen to find a niche … get a dog, he said. I was bartending at the Hotel Jerome and I started recycling there. Then I started recycling at The Aspen Times. That was 1991 and Pitkin County was just starting to recycle.Now, the volume that people throw away is just email@example.com
ASPEN Hauling garbage is a dangerous and dirty job but someones got to do it.However, retrieving from Aspens elite does have its perks big tips, working outside and being by yourself.Once I got a $1,200 tip, said Mike Ayala, a driver for Waste Solutions. Here in Aspen, they take pretty good care of you. We get homemade cookies … wine.Years ago, when it was acceptable to rifle through the trash, the job produced a treasure trove of luxury items all for the taking.Thats not to say that high-priced goods arent still thrown away by Aspens wealthy residents its just that garbage haulers are forbidden from plucking anything out of the trash these days.People watch us and they would know if we go through it, Ayala said. I dont think we should; we make pretty good money.Ayala, a former trash hauler for Rocky Mountain Disposal, said hes seen people throw out all kinds of things, from Rolex watches and gold jewelry to ski equipment, electronics, laptop computers and recently, a 42-inch plasma TV.At Christmas, if the kids dont like their presents, theyll just throw them away, he said. You find all kinds of stuff.However tempted he may be, Ayala refrains from taking such items for his own personal use. Its a policy that Waste Solutions owner Wally Graham takes very seriously, as do the operators of other trash companies.Debra Kennedy, owner of Aspen Trash, said her husband, Robert, finds unbelievable items along his routes, which mostly consist of high-end clientele.Its a different mentality when you are on vacation, she said. We find homes for things, and others throw them away.Gabe Miller, a driver for Waste Management, collects trash from about 60 homes on Red Mountain every Wednesday. He said he doesnt even pay attention to whats being tossed out.I dont see a lot of [customers], usually a housekeeper, Miller said as he backed up his 10-ton truck about a half-mile down a narrow, snow-packed road at the top of Red Mountain. I just dump them and go.The New Castle resident is in Aspen every day and typically fills his truck to the brim twice, and then unloads at the landfill. Hes able to determine how full the truck is based on a built-in scale in the cab.Ayalas Friday route takes him all over Aspen, beginning at 7 a.m. in the West End, then traveling through downtown, up the steep and narrow roads of Mountain Valley and McSkimming Road, and ending on Cemetery Lane in the afternoon. All told, Ayala will pick up trash at 386 stops.Depending on the amount of trash and other issues they discover along the way, trash haulers face between 10- and 13-hour workdays.Run-ins with bears and other wildlife who make messes of cans left outside overnight can delay the route and the drivers schedules.Ayala also can be delayed by the careless separation of recyclables, which he will personally pick through if its not sorted properly.If its contaminated, Ill take the time, he said. Winter weather makes the routes much more difficult, and requires drivers to use chains when climbing up to reach the houses high on top of the hills.Dogs chase the trucks tires and on a recent Friday, one laid in front of Ayalas truck in an alley between Seventh and Sixth streets. Ayala patiently waited until the canine was done lounging.Bill Maupin, a Denver-based senior district manager for Waste Management, said the company has worked hard to have qualified and trained drivers on the road. He commends them for safely hauling the trash in large, expensive equipment under challenging conditionsWeve tried to change that image of the dirty old garbage truck driver that you want to keep your kids inside and away from, he said. Our guys are professional.-Carolyn Sackariason
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The Snowmass Village Town Council has officially appointed Ed Foran to the six-member Krabloonik Best Practices Review Committee, filling a position that opened up in early May when Bill Fabrocini resigned.