It’s hard to find garbage collectors.
I’ve been thinking a lot about trash lately. Mostly because I started smelling it.
My husband and I are fortunate enough to own a condo in Kona, Hawaii. We stayed there over the holidays to enjoy some time off.
The trash collectors also enjoyed some time off. They quit.
I’ve written about the tight labor market in Hawaii. It can be challenging to find workers in paradise when the minimum wage is $12 an hour but the median home price is $900,000 (thanks to Mainlanders like me).
A state study in 2020 suggested that a third of families in Hawaii made up of two adults and two children don’t earn sufficient income. That figure jumps to 50% for families headed by a single parent. Hawaii has a lower workforce participation rate than the rest of the country, and Fortune reports that some Hawaiians are relocating to Las Vegas because it’s more affordable.
So when we arrived in Kona in December, the trash was piling up. We were told the garbage company didn’t have enough drivers, and we needed to be patient.
The rats loved it.
One day a trash truck arrived at 6am. Everyone cheered. I grew even more optimistic when my husband took our car in for an annual inspection and was told it might take a while, because the garage was short-handed. “Two guys just went to work for the trash collector,” the receptionist said. Yay!
But after that single, early-morning pickup, the trash wasn’t collected again for weeks. Holiday feasts rotted in the overflowing containers, not just at our complex, but at condos all over the neighborhood.
“They’re flying in crews from Oahu to help,” I was told by the homeowner’s association. We waited. Nothing.
The HOA then paid someone $50 an hour to take trash to the landfill in his personal truck, but that guy quit after a couple of trips. I suggested we rent a U-Haul and do it ourselves.
This is a very long (and entitled) way of saying that I began to think about the amount of trash I create and the cost of hauling it away. You never appreciate the people who remove your garbage until they don’t show up. Was this a fluke unique to Hawaii, or was the overall industry short on crews?
I reached out to someone who could provide answers, Richard Coupland, VP of municipal sales for Republic Services, one of the largest waste removal companies in the country.
“Labor continues to be a growing problem,” Richard tells me. He says his biggest challenge is attracting drivers with commercial (CDL) licenses. “The drivers who’ve made a career out of driving commercial vehicles — whether it's a waste or recycling truck — are retiring at a greater rate than we see new CDL drivers coming out of high school or college.” Richard calls the driver pool “a shrinking iceberg.”
A CDL driver can choose from a variety of industries, and collecting trash doesn’t sound very glamorous. It’s also a big job. Waste collection employs over 126,000 drivers to haul away garbage created by 330 million people. That’s one driver for every 2,600 Americans (plus foreign tourists — I can only imagine the trash bill at Disney World). But the average annual salary for drivers is only about $43,000.
That may be changing. Richard says Republic drivers can now earn six figures in some markets — plus benefits. And unlike a truck driver, a trash collector can spend the day “within your city, run your route, [and] be back home at a reasonable hour.”
Republic is also trying to attract new drivers by upgrading to nicer trucks and comfortable cabs — “that’s their office.” The company is leaning into technologies like electrification. “If you want to see something that excites a new CDL driver,” Richard says, “give them the chance to drive a truck that everyone wants to take an Instagram photo with.”
Bottom line, expect your trash bill to go up as waste disposal companies renegotiate multi-year contracts with local governments. Barron’s published a story last week called “Trash Can Be Treasure,” suggesting investors shouldn’t turn up their noses at garbage firms. For one thing, they’re near-monopolies. “Those dynamics give the industry pricing power, which came in handy in 2022 as inflation heated up,” writes Barron’s Nicholas Jasinski. He says rate hikes last year “were enough to keep up with increasing costs—chiefly labor—and little else.” (Emphasis mine.)
And if there’s a recession, which sometimes means less trash, collection companies have an advantage: They usually get paid by the pickup, not by the amount of garbage in the can.
However, payments can vary based on can size, something I discovered when I returned to California last month and moved into a new house with a new trash company. I was told that I could have a 32-gallon bin for regular trash for $54 a month. That would hold about three standard kitchen bags a week. Three bags might be a little tight, I thought. How much would it cost to move up to a larger bin? “That would be $90 a month,” I was informed.
Well, 32 gallons it is! Maybe I’ll start thinking about throwing less stuff away.
Richard at Republic says that’s the point. “There’s a growing approach of creating incentives to use a smaller container in order to encourage people to move more material properly toward recycling or a more environmentally responsible program,” he tells me.
Recycling, though, has often been a boom and bust business. It can be hard to predict the resale value of all that used paper and plastic. Barron’s reports that recycled cardboard shot up to $150 a ton during the pandemic’s at-home buying binge, but last year it plunged back down to $35. It’s sometimes tough to make money on that.
“If we're going to continue as a country to a sustainable platform — where the recycling containers are large and the solid waste container becomes small,” Richard says, “then you have to price the recycling program properly.” (He also says about 30% of what we put in the recycle bin ends up in the landfill. For example: stop putting plastic grocery bags and stretchy dry cleaning plastic in the recycle bin. They muck up the machines at the trash company’s sorting plant, and they’re not recyclable.)
But back to the labor issue…
I asked Richard about the possibility of driverless trucks eventually solving the problem. He says that won’t happen for a long time. “You’re just gonna need a little bit of [human] interaction to make sure that everything’s right, especially around a vehicle as it’s moving through a neighborhood.”
In the meantime, he thinks the industry could do a better job promoting itself to potential employees. “We probably, as a country, need to get back to exposing good, strong vocational careers.”
Back in Kona, the garbage situation remains trashy, last I heard. “They’re going to raise rates,” one neighbor told me. Well, duh. If one guy quits when offered $50 an hour to haul trash, I can only imagine what it’s going to take to lure someone away from driving for Amazon.
When I ran into a group of condo residents after New Year’s, I asked them if they’d made any resolutions. “Yes,” one quipped. “I’m going to start a trash company.”
How aboput incentivizing retailers to stop packaging soft drinks in plastic bottles and use recyclable aluminum cans or glass bottles instead, and do away with heavy-duty packaging for toys, tools, and small devices that is so bulky and difficult to open that it actually causes deaths every year? and retrofitting homes with packages safes to thwart porch pirates and reduce trash? And . . .
My son-in-law was a truck driver, but started working for their local trash company. He's making more money, is home for dinner, no weekends and has very generous benefits! :)