In early February, a fire tore through Don Ipema's hauling company's garage, destroying all seven trucks inside and two that were parked just outside. In all, his Environmental Recycling & Disposal, which provides collection services for approximately 2,000 commercial and industrial customers in suburban Chicago, lost nine of its 11 vehicles in the blaze.
While the evening marked a low point of Ipema's 40-year career in solid waste, he would soon find it to be the beginning of one of the most inspiring and touching experiences of his life.
The fire, the cause of which remains undetermined, took place on a Friday night that should have been among Ipema's happiest days. He and his wife had dinner at a nearby restaurant, where they were joined by his son, who works at the firm along with a brother, and his fiancée to celebrate the couple's recent engagement.
Afterwards, Ipema found a message on his home answering machine. “Something has happened at your shop, and you really need to call us quickly,” a police officer said. Ipema immediately returned the call. “There's been a fire here, and the noses on the two trucks that are outside [of the garage] are burned off,” the policeman told him.
“I asked, ‘What about the garage and what about the offices?” Ipema recalls. “He says, ‘You really need to get down here, and we really need to go over it.’ I knew that we were in trouble.”
The small office complex near the garage had been spared by the fire, but the scene that awaited Ipema when he arrived was still hard to comprehend. “I didn't expect there to be as much devastation as what there was, but I had already resigned myself that we would have nothing that we could use the following day,” he says.
Almost immediately, an outpouring from the surrounding community overwhelmed Ipema and his two sons. Colleagues from other disposal firms were quick to loan Ipema collection trucks and to offer help in servicing the firm's customers. Other people told the family they would help in any way they could. In all, the firm was able to continue serving its customers “without skipping a beat,” Ipema says.
“[We] in the industry compete like dogs, but you turn around and when times like that come, so much good comes out of it,” he says. “The experience has been unimaginable. Tears come to my eyes as I think of those things.”
By late March, Ipema had almost entirely replaced his old fleet. “As far as our day-to-day life, it's becoming normal,” he says.
Solid waste is a highly competitive business, with firms understandably focused on besting other companies. But, as Ipema is set to join the rest of the industry in Atlanta next month for WasteExpo, it's worth noting that the members of the waste community can sometimes make their biggest impact when they show compassion to those in need.
The author is the editor of Waste Age