Everything you need to know about how to setup and properly size (aka “right sizing”) your waste hauling service

Overview

Waste haulers are the trucking companies that collect your waste (refuse, rubbish, discards or trash, among other names) and haul it to a landfill. Well, in reality, they will transport it to wherever you tell them to. If you subscribe to recycling service, they will most likely transport your materials to a Materials Recovery Facility, where these resources are recovered, baled and sold on the commodities market. If you subscribe to organics recycling service, the type of material and availability of facilities in your area will dictate where the material is taken and how it is processed. 

Over the past several years I have personally inspected the waste containers and hundreds of businesses and overseen the inspection of thousands more, and the most common mistake I see is that businesses more often than not rely on their waste hauling company to estimate service levels and make recommendations. This, hands down, is the absolute wrong way to go about setting up waste hauling services. 

The overwhelming majority of waste haulers are for-profit businesses that will ultimately make recommendations that benefit them and their operations, but not necessarily you and your business. I have worked with so many businesses that are oversubscribed for services. When asked why their bins are typically underfilled, a common response is, “This was recommended to me by my service provider.” 

I don’t know the exact numbers, but have heard that upwards of 40% of revenue associated with waste hauling is earned by emptying bins that are not full. For example, I recently worked with a client that spends tens of thousands of dollars per month on their waste hauling contract, but their bins are typically only 75% full at the time of collection. They are literally throwing money out the window! 

With the cost of hauling increasing along with our awareness of the impact that our organic waste and plastic pollution has on the environment, the days of simply “throwing it away” and forgetting about it have come and gone. 

I have compiled a list of everything you should consider before signing a new contract for hauling services. And, if you are in the midst of an existing contract, here are some considerations to take that will help you make the best with what you’ve got. 

Waste hauling regulations, culture and methodologies will vary, depending on where in the world you are located, but there is one thing that will never change: you must advocate for yourself and your business. 

The following is a list of things to consider before signing a contract. It is by no means exhaustive, but will get you started along your journey of subscribing to the appropriate amount of hauling services. 

Getting started

How much service do you actually need?

Waste haulers routinely make service recommendations based on similar businesses. If, for example, you own an apartment complex with nine units, they will recommend services based on the level of service they are providing to other buildings with nine units. They typically won’t consider the size of the property, amount of green or open space, or the demographics of the occupants. Additionally, they will rarely offer additional services, such as recycling. In my experience, when recycling is requested, they will typically add it to the existing service levels, rather than reducing the solid waste service level to compensate for the recyclables being removed from the landfill container and instead placed in the recycling container. 

Setting up the right amount of service

If you already have service, this will be easier than if your business is brand new.  Every day before collection, visually inspect your bin(s) for fullness. If your bin(s) are consistently only half full, there might be an opportunity to reduce the size of the bin(s) and/or the frequency of collection. Also note the types of materials you see. There might be an opportunity to reduce the size of the bin(s) and/or frequency of collection by subscribing to recycling service and diverting valuable materials from the solid waste stream. 

Know the hauling options in your jurisdiction

More and more cities are transitioning away from open markets where you can call any service provider to bin out service in favor of closed markets that have one or a few select service providers. This is why it is important to know the options in your area. I recommend calling up your jurisdiction and ask them for the details on the hauling program. 

For example,  work with a jurisdiction that requires their services providers to provide recycling at no additional cost up to the level of solid waste service they are subscribed to. Another jurisdiction, however, stipulates that the waste haulers can charge for recycling no more than 50% of the rate they are charging for solid waste. Many haulers will promise just about anything to get a city contract, so it is important that you know what services they are required to provide you.

Avoid signing a contract

Open markets or closed markets with multiple service providers

I have come across so many businesses that are in long-term contracts with their haulers. The waste haulers themselves usually promise a lower rate in exchange for a commitment, but I highly recommend you avoid signing a contract. Here are a few reasons why: I was recently working with a local church that was looking to add a recycling program. When they called their hauler, they were told “not to worry about it.” When they went to cancel their contract they were told that they were contractually obligated to give their service provider five years notice. FIVE YEARS! And for a religious institution! 

I have also seen instances where the waste hauler will require in the contract minimum service levels. For example, a business currently subscribes to 50 cubic yards per week of solid waste service. They implement a recycling program and right size their service. Now, their new need is only 25 cubic yards to per week of service. Well, as it turns out, they signed a contract that stipulates that they must maintain a minimum service level of 40 cubic yards per week of service! Now they are paying for additional services that they don’t actually need. This in turn discourages businesses from actually implementing waste-reduction strategies. 

Exclusive franchise with only one service provider

As I mentioned previously, more and more cities and jurisdictions are transitioning towards an exclusive or semi-exclusive franchise model. This means that your business either has no choice or limited choices as to who their service provider can be. In these situations, there is no reason to sign a contract because you have no control over who you hire to haul your materials. 

Should you subscribe to service based on volume or weight?

Carts and front-loader service are priced on a monthly basis based on the volume of the bin(s) subscribed to. One 3-cubic yard solid waste container emptied once per week could cost your business anywhere from $100 to $300 per month. For businesses that generate a small amount of material, paying by volume could be right for them. For businesses that generate a lot of material, it is common practice to subscribe to services where you pay per ton for a dedicated 40-cubic yard roll-off bin or 20- to 40-cubic yard trash compactor. 

When considering paying per ton, keep in mind that there will also be an additional fee to pick up the container, transport it to the landfill or transfer station, and empty it. In Los Angeles, for example, it is currently about $280 to pickup and empty the bin, plus about $80 per ton for contents. There is also a mandate that requires solid waste containers be emptied a minimum of once per week. 

Paying per ton might seem like a good deal, but I have found that it often makes it more difficult to see what is being discarded. When it’s hard to see what is being thrown away, it is hard to make the necessary changes to reduce the amount of waste generated. 

Wrapping up

When establishing or optimizing your hauling service, I can’t help but stress the importance of doing your due diligence. Waste haulers are (sadly) in business to make a profit, not help your business reduce its waste. Understand the ins and outs of waste hauling in your area, and be sure to advocate for you and your business. There are few things more rewarding than saving money by optimizing your waste hauling service and reducing waste. 

I’d like to hear from you

What has been your experience setting up or optimizing your waste hauling service? Did you receive push-back from your hauler? Was your city or local jurisdiction supportive of your changes? Share your experience in the comments below, or by sending me an email!

About the author

Jonathan Levy is an environmental consultant focused in solid waste and zero waste lifestyle enthusiast. When he isn’t knee-deep in a dumpster, you can find him entrenched in a book, hiking the San Gabriel mountains, or tending to his composting worms.

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