Facing Our Image

At 10 p.m. on most Wednesday nights, many Americans turn on cable television and gets a very bad picture of the solid waste industry.

Tony Soprano and his New Jersey-based family, characters in the Emmy-winning HBO drama, "The Sopranos," work in the "waste management business." Only in the show, working in the "garbage business," is a euphemism for being involved in organized crime. And when Tony talks about a typical day on the job, he's more likely talking about killing people, not collecting garbage.

David Chase, the show's writer, director and producer, leaves nothing to the imagination when he says, "'The Sopranos isn't a period piece, it's about what's happening - it's about the mob today ... and the problems that the mob is having today."

Maybe so, but the series certainly isn't about what's happening in the solid waste industry today. And having this stereotype broadcast into the collective unconscious of Americans everywhere isn't the best public relations effort for the industry.

However, according to people who work in the garbage industry, it's not the biggest threat to their image either.

Depending on whom you talk to, the industry's image is good, bad or just ok - not exactly heartening. But worse are whispers that the solid waste industry of the mid 1980s and early 1990s had a more professional image, was a Wall Street darling and had overcome many of those negative stereotypes, whereas today's image has slipped backward.

Not everyone agrees that television shows like "The Sopranos" are harming the industry's image. But most say there are many reasons that solid waste companies, employees and stocks are not thought of as highly as they should be. And more important, most industry insiders agree that there is a lot that can and should be done to improve the public's perception.

How Are We Looking? If you ask 10 people about the solid waste industry's image, you're likely to get at least nine different answers.

According to Bruce Parker, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Industry Associations, average Americans don't have a conscious, articulated view of the solid waste industry like they do for other industries such as law or medicine.

"It's an industry where the homeowner throughout every village and hamlet in the United States, at least twice a week, sees a $150,000 piece of equipment pull up right to his door, walk on his lawn and perform an absolutely vital, essential task that would be devastating if it wasn't done," he says. "And it's done so seamlessly, effortlessly and on time that the average American doesn't think about it."

But that's the problem, says N.C. Vasuki, chair of the Delaware Solid Waste Authority. "It's like Rodney Dangerfield: We don't get respect for what we do," he says. "Every day we pick up society's discards, take it away and dispose of it properly. But very few people understand how important the industry is for maintaining public health and environmental quality."

One reason for this lack of knowledge is that the industry as a whole has not made an effort to improve its image, which hasn't always been perceived as squeaky clean. "This is an industry that was started by immigrants at the turn of the century," Parker says. "When Italians, Jews, Armenians and Dutch came over, they were looked at as the lowest thing on the food chain, and all they could get were garbage [jobs]. They were embarrassed about it, they felt shame about it and that feeling lasted for decades."

Things changed in the early 1960s as the industry began taking shape. The large, publicly traded companies began giving a sense of pride and business acumen to the industry that a lot of the small independents also absorbed. Lonnie Poole, CEO and founder of Waste Industries, Raleigh, N.C., says opinion polls from 25 or 30 years ago showed garbage workers ranked second behind doctors in the most trusted professional category. "Back then, there were probably as many as 9,000 or 10,000 small companies. And people knew the garbage man," he says.

But as companies have grown and consolidated, and as newer technology developed, the job has become less personal and the public's trust level has diminished. "The garbage guys used to come down the alley and you knew who they were; you left them a cold drink or a card at Christmas time, and now there's this faceless entity on the end of a mechanical arm. It's a different world," says Susan Young, director of solid waste and recycling for Minneapolis' department of public works.

"A lot of our customers - as the world gets pickier and pickier about what may or may not go into the garbage - feel that they need to gift wrap and gold plate their garbage," she says. "They feel that we've gotten away from our image of protecting public health and safety and being a valued public service to becoming a bunch of regulators that are trying to change their lifestyles from the back of a garbage truck."

This is ironic, considering that the industry does a much better job than it did 30 years ago.

"[Solid waste] was going into sewers, we buried it in swamps, dumped it in fields and burned it outside of town; it was a very bad system," Poole says. "Today, the general public would say there are no more burning dumps, the facilities are clean, neat and impressive, and our service is better, dependable and responsive."

EIA public opinion polls in the late 1980s and early 1990s found that perceptions of garbage workers still ranked high, even as things began to heat up for the industry itself.

In 1991 when Subtitle D passed, it, along with issues such as landfill siting, had a negative impact on the industry's image. This sparked a surge of newspaper articles, public hearings and discussions.

"From the '90s to the present, there has been an almost exponential public awareness and consciousness of the environmental issues of our industry," Parker says. "That has catapulted a certain aspect of our industry into the limelight, and the politicians and public interest groups involved in this have occupied center stage to the potential detriment of the rank-and-file trash collector."

Gradual Improvements The industry's image is starting to improve, but change is slow.

Fred Leach, president and CEO of the Leach Co., Oshkosh, Wis., says corruption during the '90s tarnished the industry so badly that it's just now beginning to recover, "most recently in the last four or five years, with all the indictments of the private haulers in the city of New York," he says. "But that's all behind us now."

"Maybe some of the problems in the stock of the public companies may have started to tarnish that again," Leach adds, "but with the quality of the management in the public companies and the way they are continuing to improve and show strong earnings, the image of the industry is starting to move forward significantly."

The '90s wave of consolidation even changed the way Wall Street viewed the industry. "When Waste Management Inc. went through its troubles, its image was hurt and we were sucked into that vacuum with them - even though as a company we have had 100 consecutive quarters of profitable returns to our investors," says Jimmy Rogers, director of sales and marketing for Waste Industries. "We benefit from the good, but we're hurt by the bad."

"The industry was not a stock to hold in the 1990s because it really didn't perform," says Will Flower, director of communications for Republic Services, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. "That's changing now, and investors are looking to companies for good, solid profitability. The image of the industry has changed from a mom and pop operation to a big business and a professionally run business."

Tom Fatjo, chairman of Waste Corp. of America, Houston, says the basics of the solid waste industry are good and have not changed in the 30 years he has worked in the business. "The industry has consistently grown," he says. "There continues to be good opportunities, even though there's been a lot of consolidation."

The tremendous advances the industry has made over the past decade have boosted its image, says John Skinner, executive director and CEO for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md.

"The systems that have been put in place are orders of magnitude better than the practices we used just 10 years ago," he says. "Across the board, with respect to the design and operation of landfills, the design and operation of waste-to-energy facilities, materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and collection, operations are safer."

Lynn Merrill, director of public services for the city of San Bernardino, Calif., says the stereotypical image of the garbage man working off the back of the truck in an undershirt with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth has changed.

"Now it's more professional. You're seeing lots of effort focused on training and [more] qualified people," he says. "You've got people now in charge of pieces of equipment that cost upwards of $150,000 to $200,000 and you just don't want to put anybody out there driving and operating that truck."

Good Image is Good Business A positive image is important to doing business every day. Whether it's a private or public company, image affects everything from project funding to hiring and retaining employees.

"If you have a good reputation or present a good image, it opens up a lot of doors," Waste Industries' Poole says. "A good reputation builds your customer base without sacrificing those you already have. It makes it easier to hire people and to renew contracts."

"If you're siting landfills and the image of your company or your city is one of exploitation and environmental rapine, then you might as well hang it up," Minneapolis' Young says. "Most of the environmental justice allegations regarding waste facilities are image-related: 'What are you bringing into my neighborhood? Is it a bunch of smelly, dirty, loud garbage trucks, or is it a nice facility [that brings] the potential of jobs and a good neighbor to the community?'"

A positive image even affects contracts and franchise agreements, which often include specifications about cleanliness of equipment, attire and personnel. "If you're putting trucks out there that are rusted and need body work or paint, and your guys are in T-shirts that say, 'Eat at Joe's,' you're conveying an image of sloppiness," Merrill says.

And of course, quality of service portrays an image, too. "People have to have confidence in what is being provided to them and have to believe that they're getting good value for their money," SWANA's Skinner says.

"I tell my folks that I want them to treat each and every customer like they want their grandmother to be treated, because customer service is really what we offer and is a big piece of our competitiveness day-to-day," Young says. "In reality, all it takes is a majority of council votes - not all of them - just a majority, and you are in or out of business."

Some say image affects hiring and retaining employees. "Right now, Minneapolis' unemployment rate is 2.8 percent," Young says. "Do you want to go home and say, 'Hi honey, I just got a job as an over-the-road trucker and I'm going to be delivering groceries,' or 'Hi, honey, I'm the garbageman.'"

"There is definitely this negative perception of being a trash truck driver," Merrill says. "There's a genuine perception that it's a real dirty, stinky, low-class job. Improving the image, the benefits and the overall working environment all help."

Skinner says a company's individual image, more than the overall industry's, affects hiring. "When people come on board and find good operations and job possibilities, especially when the operations are very professional, it doesn't affect them," he says.

Nevertheless, Merrill says image can affect more than just one operation, especially for municipalities. "There are only about three or four points of contact that a citizen has with their city," he explains. "My drivers are out there in front of everybody's house every single week, and this point of contact reflects the whole system, all the way up to the mayor."

Thus, the industry must work at improving its image. "Perception is the only thing that counts," Waste Industries' Rogers says. "If we don't maintain our trucks well, if they don't look good on the street, if we don't act safely every day, those things all have incremental impacts on the image we portray and the image of the industry as a whole."

Perception is Reality Fortunately, many companies, associations and individuals are working to improve the industry's image through good public relations, education, communication, community involvement, practices and training.

But communication is the key to developing a positive image, SWANA's former Executive Director Larry Hickman says. "The message I wish we were getting across [to the public] is what a good job we're doing for such a small amount of money," he asserts. "It is a terrific bargain."

SWANA's Skinner agrees. "At the local level, I've seen many solid waste authorities change public opinion significantly just by going out and talking to people, doing a lot with schools, citizen groups and community groups," he says. "People really don't know what's happening in these operations, and when they find out they're very impressed."

There are several good examples of companies changing public opinions across the country.

A SWANA member in West Palm Beach, Fla., that operates a large solid waste authority recently got a new neighbor: a golf development with million-dollar homes was built right next door. "People first come by, and they're very concerned about being next to a solid waste authority," Skinner says. "Then the authority brings the people in and shows them the facility and people come back very impressed with the quality and professionalism of the operation."

Image is Local Today, solid waste companies often build into their missions efforts to create a good image in the communities they serve.

Last year, Waste Industries went above and beyond community service when a hurricane hit North Carolina. The company, which has municipal contracts in 25 to 35 of the areas hit hardest by the hurricane, donated time and money cleaning up and rebuilding [See "Floyd Floods Waste Industries," Waste Age, Nov. 1999, page 28].

The Waste Industries Foundation, started by shareholders and founders, gave $100,000 for flood relief in eastern North Carolina. "In addition, our employees did several things: we took up contributions, and if employees wanted to sell their vacation days, the company bought them and gave that money to charity," Poole says. "The end result was that the employees raised another $30,000."

Through the Elmer Leach Foundation, the Leach Co. gives scholarships to continuing education students attending the college of nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The company also administers the David Leach Continuing Education Fund for Nurses through Oshkosh's Mercy Medical Center.

"The seed money for that fund came from the donations of people throughout the waste industry at the time of my father's death," Leach says.

Today, the scholarships are funded through the Leach Co. and industry donations. Each year, instead of sending out Christmas gifts to clients, the company sends cards with an insert about its scholarships and funds. Last year, 10 scholarships were given through the Elmer Leach Foundation for a total of 215 since 1964.

In 1999 alone, the David Leach Fund helped 23 nurses attend advanced fetal monitoring and critical care seminars.

When Hickman retired from SWANA in 1996, the Lanny and Kay Hickman Intern Program was established to fund college student internships. This summer, the program will pay the summer salary of a PhD candidate, who will work with the Delaware Solid Waste Authority performing basic and applied research on gases, volatile organic compounds and landfill liner materials.

"This project will give them some answers, and it also will help advance the science," Hickman says. "And the findings will be published so everyone can learn from the exercise."

Many other companies participate in the communities they serve through neighborhood watch programs. Early in the morning when drivers collect trash, they also will call the local police or a neighborhood watch contact person if they see something suspicious.

EIA's Parker also encourages public and private companies to support Little League programs and charities, and to be a part of the community.

In Minneapolis, Young pushes public relations and customer service. Minneapolis has 88 neighborhoods and when one has a parade, Young says it's important that a piece of her equipment is included. The city's Early Family Childhood Education Programs have truck days, and she makes sure to provide a recycling rig for kids to climb over and play on, along with a knowledgeable, personable individual to answer questions and represent the department.

Young also visits schools and meets with customers frequently at neighborhood meetings to foster a good image. "The word is out in Minneapolis that if you get two people together who want to talk trash, Susan Young will be there," she says. Minneapolis' complex program means that Young meets with customers several times a week to explain separate collections, voucher programs and recyclables. But she uses the meetings for another purpose, too.

"I make it a point at neighborhood meetings to say, 'Hi, my name is Susan Young, and I'm your trash lady,'" she explains. "I make it a point to say that because it's important that people don't say, 'ewwww.' That's one thing that I can do to help fix the image of the industry in people's minds."

Landfills are another source of improving the solid waste industry's image, believe it or not.

Flower says Republic Services gives landfill tours in its regions because it helps reduce apprehension. And if you can do that, it helps the entire industry, he says.

"Thomas Jefferson said an informed public is capable of making good decisions," Flower adds. "That is the basis for making sure you have a good image, and you want the public to know about the good things you're doing."

The 1960's image of burning rubbish in the stinky town dump must be struck from people's minds, he continues. "Today, landfills are sophisticated, expensive, engineered disposal facilities meant to protect the environment," he says. "When people visit landfills, their typical response is 'I never knew this much work went into developing and operating a landfill.' People are opposed until they see with their own eyes what actually goes on."

Yet despite all the good that's being done, more is needed, Skinner says.

"Both the public sector and the private sector need to reach out and show what a good job we're doing," he says. "The practices that have been put in place are not appreciated and not known enough about."

Waste Industries, which serves eight southwestern states, routinely uses questionnaires that ask customers what they think. "From that information, we develop a proactive plan to make a positive difference in the communities we serve," Poole says. "If you don't give good service, there's no amount of service or advertising or anything you can do to overcome that - you're either doing a good job or a bad job."

You can do all the right things from a PR perspective but, ultimately, it's the real men and women out there every day on the trucks- not Tony Soprano and HBO - who will create the image of today's solid waste industry.

The Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), Washington, D.C., has invested about $1.2 million so far to enhance the industry's image.

According to Michael Cagney, president, the EREF's mission is to develop environmental solutions for the future. Although the foundation began in 1992 with the National Solid Waste Management Association (NSWMA) in Washington, D.C., it is not a trade association. Project funding comes mainly from waste industry individuals, and the EREF doesn't receive any government funds. The foundation's board of directors consists of waste industry CEOs, university professors and other scientists.

"It exists to serve the public trust," Cagney says. "The research we conduct, whether the results are good or bad, is disseminated to the public."

Cagney says the EREF has $10 million in its portfolio and more money committed.

"We're young, and the amount of money we have is not enough to make an earthshaking impact at this point, but we are growing. By 2005, we will have $25 million in our portfolio, and it's strictly to be used for science that will serve the work we do and the public good," he says.

During the past eight years, the EREF has studied the industry's ethics, funded two scientists at Yale and the University of Illinois, and developed award-winning landfill software, called Lifecycle Inventory, for the industry.

Designed to provide landfill data from day one to 500 years out, this software represents a two-year effort and has received wide acclaim, Cagney says.

The EREF's future plans include pursuing congressional appropriation for a bio-reactor project at a Michigan landfill and spending $225,000 to develop a television program about the future of the industry. "Solid Waste in the 21st Century," a program that will air on A&E in August or September, will look at the differences in how solid waste is handled in the United States and worldwide.

"It's not a whitewash," Cagney says. "It's that kind of programming that will build an image for this industry."

Tony Soprano's profession on the HBO series "The Sopranos" is referred to as the "waste management business." But, in television reality, he works in organized crime.

The fact that this popular TV series perpetuates a stereotype that was thought to be fading makes most in the industry roll their eyes and laugh.

"I've dealt with it at cocktail parties, 'Oh, you're in the garbage business, is it really Mafia?'" says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C. "I think that's a New York City stereotype that people joke about. In Missouri, do people really think about the Mafia when they get their garbage picked up?"

At one time, however, there were areas of organized crime in the industry, mostly in New York and New Jersey. In 1994, New York City passed a law that established a commission to clean up organized crime's presence. Currently, the solid waste industry is regulated by the city of New York, and companies such as Waste Management Inc., Houston, and Allied Waste Industries-Browning-Ferris Industries, Scottsdale, Ariz., that are picking up garbage in the Big Apple. Yet the stereotypes have lingered.

"I don't think it really affects our business at all, other than the stereotyping. People like stereotypes because when you reduce a person or a job to a stereotype, it eliminates the need for independent thinking. We all do that," Parker explains. "Within 10 years, I think that stereotype will largely vanish because the mob's out of the business."

Everywhere except on HBO, perhaps.

Raymond James analyst William Fischer said recently that although the solid waste industry's fundamentals have never been better, the garbage community still is out of favor with the investment community.

"It's not out of favor because the industry fundamentals aren't good. This has never been a dramatic growth industry," says Tom Fatjo, chairman of Waste Corp. of America, Houston. "But there has been the opportunity to build growth companies within the industry, which has been growing consistently. In 1970, it was a $5 billion industry, and today it's approaching a $40 billion industry."

Still, when the large, publicly traded companies stocks fall, the entire industry's image does, too. In 1990, Browning-Ferris Industries, Houston, announced the first loss in its history (due to the write-off of its hazardous waste division), and it absolutely shook Wall Street, Fatjo says. "It took a few years for the investment community to recover," he says. "Then [Houston-based] Waste Management Inc.'s (WMI) stock dramatically went from the mid-50s or 60s to the lower teens."

But Waste Management's recent resurgence has spurred new optimism. Fund managers and analysts, while cautious about WMI's future growth, have applauded the company's better-than-expected first quarter results. Last month, the trash hauler's shares traded higher than they had since October, and profit topped analysts' forecasts by two cents.

After four profit warnings, a management shakeout and a federal investigation into allegations of insider trading, investors in Waste Management have renewed faith.

Bill Miller, manager of the Legg Mason Value Trust Fund, named Waste Management as his top pick to buy and hold for the next decade in a December 1999 New York Times survey. Citing the company's low valuations, Internet insulation, currency and technology risk, and few competitors, Miller told the Times that investors can earn five to 10 times their money in the next 10 years. Miller's fund is Waste Management's second-largest fund owner, holding 4.2 percent of the company's shares.

Miller wouldn't comment on Waste Management's recent stock boost, but several analysts now share his enthusiasm for the company's recent performance. First-quarter results have sparked several upgrades from analysts at Salomon Smith Barney, PaineWebber, Merrill Lynch and Raymond James. Salomon Smith Barney analyst Leone Young, who raised Waste Management to "outperform" from "neutral," says that the company isn't out of the woods yet, but is now poised for a long run up. Analyst William Fischer of Raymond James upgraded WMI from "buy" to "strong buy" last month.

When it's clear Waste Management is comfortably on the road to recovery, Fatjo says, "it's just a matter of time before the investment community realizes that the basics of the industry are very sound ... and it's a really outstanding industry."

"We've spent considerable effort in landscaping, having a good buffer and showing people that waste management is serious business," N.C. Vasuki says when discussing why he designed one of Delaware's first landfills to look like a park.

"After the first project was started, we were able to site two more landfills within three years," says Vasuki, chairman of the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, Dover. "So having the first new landfill properly designed and operated gave us a big image boost."

Today, the Authority operates and maintains four landfills, which have become known as models for the U.S. solid waste industry. Visitors from all around the world have praised them as some of the best they've seen, Vasuki says. And, he adds, after opponents to a New Jersey landfill visited Delaware's facilities, they approved and built the landfill.

"When you drive into a landfill, if you don't see litter, if you see nicely landscaped areas, then all of a sudden you get the idea that people here know what they're doing," he says. "As you go into a landfill and each area of the landfill is properly finished, again, it improves the image."

The Delaware Solid Waste Authority is an industry leader in landfill research and improving landfill technology, including liner types and leachate and gas management systems, Vasuki adds.

"Our goal is to make sure that future generations won't be stuck with [landfill] problems," he says. "I get so tired of reading time and again in newspapers and magazines that environmental groups say landfills leak chemicals into the groundwater. The landfills we build today have 99.9 percent assurance that nothing will go to the groundwater."

As for public relations, Vasuki says the industry needs to get the public to visit more landfills. Landfill tours provide the best image boost, he says.

"We not only give tours, but I've arranged lunches at the landfills several times, for League of Women Voters, Chamber of Commerce members and politicians," Vasuki says. "Just suppose you get an invitation saying you're invited to lunch at the landfill, you go there, it's a very nice place and you have a nice lunch."

"You can hand out brochures and all that," he says, "but there's nothing like people visiting a landfill."