THE SOLID WASTE INDUSTRY, Paul Jenks likes to say, is “more evolutionary than revolutionary.” As president and CEO of Onyx Waste Services (OWS) and an industry veteran of 23 years, Jenks should know. Change occurs slowly in this industry, he says, whether it relates to regulations, waste streams or technology. But as the industry evolves in the United States, Onyx Waste Services is determined to stay ahead of the curve. And there's no reason the company should not be able to. After all, OWS can draw on its sister companies and international expertise, when necessary, to grow its operations.
The Milwaukee-based OWS is just one of four sister companies that make up Onyx North America, along with Onyx Montenay Power (its waste-to-energy division), Onyx Environmental Services (its hazardous waste division) and Onyx Industrial Services (its industrial cleaning and maintenance division). Founded in 2000, Sarasota, Fla.-based Onyx North America (ONA) is itself the American arm of Onyx, the international waste company owned by France-based Veolia Environnement. Despite its international backing, however, Onyx Waste Services maintains that it is a homegrown operation. The company was formed out of Onyx's acquisition of Superior Services, which had a longtime waste presence in the Midwest.
“We feel American,” says Michel Gourvennec, president and CEO of Onyx North America. Gourvennec held various international positions with Veolia before assuming his ONA role. “We have a payroll of 9,000 in Canada and the United States. We have focused on being an American company, and we are learning from the States.”
Today, Onyx Waste Services is a fully integrated solid waste company that provides collection, transfer, recycling and disposal services to more than 1.3 million residential, commercial and industrial customers throughout North America. Sister company New York City-based Onyx Montenay Power (OMP) is leading what some are viewing as a resurgence in the waste-to-energy (WTE) sector. Together, in a competitive market dominated by well-known waste giants, Onyx North America is working to distinguish itself with its integrated approach, strong environmental ethic, and commitment to research and innovation.
Onyx North America is aware that, with its international brand name, the company might have a difficult time edging into the increasingly consolidated and competitive North American waste industry. But having a global view on the American waste market also can be advantageous.
“We are very modest, because this country has the two biggest players, Waste Management and Allied Waste, and they are very strong in their market,” Gourvennec says. “We want to be one of the key players [here]. But it's better to be present worldwide because you have the advantage of being well-aware of revolutions in technology. We want to be successful on a worldwide level.”
To brand itself in America, Onyx North America focuses on its ability to provide customers with wholly integrated waste services. It maintains that it is the only company in North America that provides solid waste collection, recycling and disposal; hazardous waste; industrial cleaning; and waste-to-energy services. Onyx also has a company-wide commitment to research, development and technology exchange.
“Onyx has a coordinating research center in France that monitors and invests money to coordinate programs with local universities to identify and catalog emerging technologies, such as incineration and bioreactors,” Jenks says. “This gives us an advantage in that when we need a technology that we don't see domestically, we can turn to them.” Recently, a team from the United States and another from France helped to initiate a bioreactor project in Australia.
Executives who came from Superior view being a fully integrated company with international backing a welcome change. “One of the big benefits is that we can bid on any project that's out there,” says Todd Watermolen, vice president of engineering and compliance for OWS. “In the early stages of Superior Services, our balance sheet may have restricted us from pursuing major contracts in the United States. No solid waste projects are too big for the company now.”
Yet Onyx views its corporate stature not as an excuse to sidestep environmental stewardship — but as more reason to embrace it. “The company's mandate is environmental sustainability, and that's not negotiable. That comes from the parent company,” Jenks says. “The Europeans, in almost every case, have preceded the United States. We have exposure to that, and we can also draw down on that technology when we find an opportunity to use it.”
Onyx's international roots give it a unique perspective on the American recycling market as well. European governments have been more involved in regulating recycling than the United States, where land still is widely available and landfilling is relatively affordable. Yet Onyx believes that as space becomes scarcer and transportation and disposal costs rise, Americans may have to find creative ways to boost recycling, just as the Europeans have. Currently, OWS operates 14 recycling facilities.
“I don't think recycling will ever die,” Jenks says. “It will go through phases where parts of it are favored and parts of it are not. Every American buys, consumes and disposes of a certain amount of material. We can't ignore that as recycling grows.”
Onyx Waste Services is now the fourth-largest waste management company in North America, and landfills are a cornerstone of its operations. The company owns or operates 21 landfills, primarily located in the Midwest, Pennsylvania and the Southeast. Remarkably, the company already has incorporated bioreactor technology at nearly all of its landfills at a time when other waste companies have only begun pilot projects. Bioreactors operate by introducing air and liquid back into landfills, which accelerates the biodegradation process, conserves airspace and boosts landfill gas production. “It allows us to get commercially available volumes of landfill gas,” Jenks says.
Onyx started experimenting with bioreactor research in the mid-1990s, despite the fact that many state regulators (not to mention recycling and zero-waste advocates) were reluctant to embrace the practice. Today, bioreactors are increasingly accepted, although skeptics remain. “It's a long-term project that's going to take five to 15 years before we see all the benefits from leachate toxicity [reduction], landfill gas, gains in airspace and post-closure care,” Watermolen says. “We're continuing to gather data, and it's very positive.”
OWS is positioning itself as an expert in bioreactor research. Among its most visible findings, the company has contended that bioreactors reduce leachate toxicity by 80 or 90 percent. “The landfill is anaerobic, and microbes are basically digesting and consuming the organic acids that are in the leachate,” Watermolen says. “Those microbes are enhanced so that they can absorb the contaminants and break them down. Bioreactor technology [provides] a positive benefit and sheds a greener light on landfills.”
Bioreactors, Watermolen adds, can boost landfill gas generation by a factor of three to 10 times. “There is a lot of emphasis right now on using all the landfill gas that's being generated as green energy,” Watermolen says. “The new tax credit law that just went into effect may help with that, but it's very limited in scope. It would be nice if those tax credits were extended. That's a push that we have within the company.”
One such project is under way at Onyx's Seven Mile Creek Landfill in Eau Claire, Wis. There, a new 3-megawatt gas-to-energy facility is producing electricity for Dairyland Power in La Cross, Wis., to supply to its residential and commercial customers. The facility produces enough energy to power more than 2,600 households. In Horicon, Wis., the company installed eight 30-kilowatt microturbines at its Glacier Ridge Landfill, providing energy for about 100 households. Additionally, the company helped to restore native prairie and wetlands near the facility, improving the natural water flow in the area and reducing invasive species.
Complementing Onyx Waste's gas-to-energy efforts, Onyx also has cornered the market on WTE, long thought to be a moribund sector of the waste industry. Currently, Onyx Montenay Power operates 10 WTE facilities with a capacity of more than 11,000 tons per day. The facilities convert more than 3.8 million tons of waste to energy each year. In addition to becoming the first WTE company in the United States to earn ISO 14001 certification, which verifies environmental management systems, seven of Onyx's 10 WTE facilities have received the certification.
“ISO certification shows that instead of just doing the minimum to meet your permit requirements, you have a system that shows there's a continuing process to upgrade the environmental management of your facilities,” says Steve Passage, president and CEO of OMP. In addition, five OMP facilities have been accepted into the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Voluntary Protection Program, which certifies those companies that have volunteered for and successfully passed OSHA safety inspections. Currently, only about 1,000 workplaces, out of about 6 million, have been accepted into the program.
Such efforts are important, Passage says, to help position Montenay Power for the growth he expects to see in the WTE sector in the coming years. Because of a range of factors — such as the low costs of landfill disposal, an increase in recycling and the widespread image of WTE facilities as polluters — the industry has stagnated in the past decade.
“That period of stagnation is coming to an end, both in the short term and in the long term,” Passage predicts. “The biggest change is that the economic competitiveness of WTE is going to change when the current open contracts end. The tipping fee for a WTE plant that is now $80 a ton could drop to $30 per ton or $40 a ton, when these contracts expire. WTE will become the cheaper alternative.”
As American waste generation continues to rise and recycling rates remain flat, more communities may turn to waste-to-energy as well, Passage contends. WTE is a viable part of any integrated waste management system, he adds, pointing out that recycling tends to benefit in these communities. “Most of the things that are recycled aren't suitable for WTE,” Passage says. “Generally the history of WTE shows that, in communities that do it, the recycling rate is higher than in communities that don't.”
Once again, Montenay is depending on Onyx's research divisions to keep it abreast of emerging WTE technologies. As with other aspects of the waste industry, WTE technology has changed little from the “mass burn” technique that has been used for more than a century. Yet new WTE technologies are being tested in Europe and Asia that could increase the efficiency of American facilities in the next 10 years, Passage predicts.
In the meantime, OMP is focusing on operating its current facilities and acquiring other existing operations as feasible, which eliminates most of the cost of designing and building new facilities. In September, the company was awarded a 10-year contract extension to prolong its management of the Miami-Dade County Resources Recovery Facility — which processes 1.2 million tons of trash and produces up to 76 megawatts of energy each year — until the year 2023.
OMP's cautious approach to growth is typical of all of Onyx North America's operations. “We've been very careful in our external growth,” Paul Jenks says. “We tend to grow in markets where we already have disposal facilities.”
Jenks adds that having a broad customer base has helped the company to weather the economic downtown the past couple years. “We've had the good fortune to have balanced the solid waste business lines between the industrial, residential and commercial sectors,” he says. “The residential sector is the most stable in terms of the season and economy. The industrial sector turns down early in a recession but comes back early, while the commercial sector turns down later and comes back later. What we're seeing, now that the economy is recovering, is a very competitive market among service-based customers, moving away from large industrial customers.”
Onyx also is focused on vertical integration in most markets. “The key to our industry, like any industry, is to have a sales funnel that's full,” Jenks concludes. “We want to grow all our sectors. What's important is to keep them in balance.”
Kim A. O'Connell is a Waste Age contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.
ONYX WASTE SERVICES AT-A-GLANCE
Services and Service Area: Onyx Waste Services Inc. (OWS) provides collection, transfer, transportation, disposal and recycling services to generators of solid and special waste.
Operations: OWS has operating locations in 11 states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The company operates 62 solid waste collection operations and owns 21 landfills, 11 recycling facilities and 31 transfer stations. OWS also has an equity interest in a solid waste collection operation and landfill on Grand Bahama Island and manages the solid waste operations of affiliated companies in Quebec, Canada, which include 3 landfills, 3 recycling facilities and 2 transfer stations.
No. of Customers: 1.24 million residential, 135,000 commercial and industrial.
No. of Employees: 3,513
Stock: OWS is traded under parent company Veolia Environnement (NYSE: VE).
Customer Service: Onyx Waste Services recently launched a new customer-focused Web site at www.onyxws.com.