Because of the diverse nature of our membership, I have the opportunity to meet with a wide array of businesses and learn about their successes and challenges they face. Last week, I sat with one of our board members, Jon Skates, the regional manager for Casella Waste Systems. We talked about Casella, their operation and how they are working to continuously improve their services in response to customer expectations.
The company itself was founded in 1975. Casella’s Refuse Removal started in Rutland, Vermont when Doug Casella began picking up garbage from a few customers in the Rutland and Killington region with a pickup truck. The business was off to a good start, and one year later, Doug’s younger brother John joined him to help run the business. The brothers recognized the opportunity the industry presented and in 1977 they built the first recycling facility in Vermont.
Skip ahead 42 years, and you will find one of the most successful resource solutions companies in the Northeast. Casella is listed on the NASDAQ exchange (no small feat), employs 750 in Vermont – 80 in the Montpelier region – and also has operations in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania. The company has diversified into commercial, industrial and residential services and operates the state’s only landfill in Coventry. On a daily basis, the Montpelier Hauling Division will deploy a fleet of about 30 trucks around Central Vermont covering almost 1 million road miles each year.
The biggest challenge facing the company today? According to Skates, “Workforce. We have plenty of good paying jobs, but like many businesses, we are having a hard time finding qualified, capable people. Our positions pay well, because they are truly skilled positions, whether as a driver with a commercial drivers’ license or in our shops maintaining our truck fleet. The pay and benefits are very good. The consistency of work is unmatched, frankly. But it’s still a challenge to recruit a few more great team members.”
“To continue to work on solutions for this problem, we established a career path program that lays out career development opportunities for our employees. We’ve taken the first steps to formalize our training programs and career tracks, so drivers and mechanics can plan out where they want to be in one year, three years or even farther ahead. They get a clear picture of the steps to build on for their experience and get an idea of how their rate of pay can grow.”
Another practical concern is for the safety of their employees. The company incorporates a strict safety regime into every aspect of their operation. “The only thing more important than servicing our customers is the safety of the public and our employees. It’s in everything we do.” Unfortunately, operators face distracted drivers. Winter can present even added challenges for everyone on the road. Impatient drivers trying to pass the trucks create dangerous situations, sometimes with dire consequences.
Their recycling service has become a “Zero Sort” process for customers, making it easier for the consumer to recycle in one bin. Once the trucks bring the recyclables to the transfer station, the product is combined with other hauls, loaded into a larger vehicle and brought to a material reclamation facility (MRF) where it is mechanically and manually divided. Glass, plastics, paper, metals are all commodities that are sold to be repurposed. Since China has closed its doors to certain recyclables from the U.S., the market has become much more volatile. Products that before were garnering top dollar have become loss leaders. In many regions of the country, the cost to recycle mandated recyclables is higher than the cost to dispose of waste in landfills. The result is higher cost to the consumers. Market forces like this can call into question why certain materials are recycled as society places dynamic values on those materials. As for municipal solid waste (or trash), it goes to the landfill which, according to Skates, will be at maximum capacity in three years. The company has applied to expand the landfill and that approval process is now underway. And it is an important proposition. Having an operating landfill in Vermont is important for all residents and businesses. Mr. Skates told me that, “The landfill is valuable for Vermont as it provides a responsible method for getting rid of trash at an economically reasonable rate. There is no long-haul cost to bring the trash to out-of-state facilities which would result in significantly increased costs, costs that would be passed on directly to the customers.”
Large generators of food waste, or organic material, are already complying with part of Act 148, the Universal Recycling Law which mandates diversion of food waste material. In 2020, the law mandates that all Vermonters, regardless of the amount of food waste generation, must separate their organic waste from trash. Small commercial and residential customers can compost their organics locally or on their own properties. For many, however, that may not be an option. And conversely, in rural areas of the state, it may not be a cost-effective option to pay for collection services. It does, however, highlight the interesting years ahead as we continue to evaluate all the options for how to best manage our waste streams.
I came away from my meeting with a greater appreciation for the drivers who work in darkness, usually unseen by the customers, a better understanding of the resource recovery solutions industry and impressed by the success of a small Vermont business that has hit the big time.
William Moore is the CEO and president of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.