Heartland Hauler Extends Its Branches

"Did you know that one ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees? Each day, R.C. Miller Refuse Service recycles enough paper to save almost 900 trees." Dial this Canton, Ohio-based waste hauler and that's the recorded advertising message you'll hear as you wait for assistance.

While many refuse haulers and handlers embrace recycling as a means of reducing landfill tipping fees, not all sell the concept to their customers as a salve to their social conscience. For R.C. Miller, however, this approach seems to work. With 210 employees, this growing operation includes an 85-truck fleet, a transfer station and recycling facility, a truck maintenance facility, a truck wash facility and a paper recycling company.

Waxing Successful Since Ronald C. Miller, the company's president, first entered the waste industry nearly 40 years ago, he has attempted to adapt by using creative solutions to challenges posed by an ever-changing business climate.

In 1957, Miller, a high school student, lost his mother to leukemia. He needed to earn extra money to support himself and his brother, so he bought a pickup truck and started working odd jobs. He also took an afternoon job at a wax paper plant. Eventually, someone offered him a trash collection route with 100 homes for $75. He bought it and began hauling trash in the mornings. Within a year, he hired another employee to help with the business.

"Back then, in the late '50s and early '60s, there wasn't a lot of compaction equipment around," Miller said. "An open truck was a lot of work."

In 1962, Miller bought his first 16-cubic-yard truck for $16,000 - the first rear loader of its kind in Stark County, Ohio. Over the years, Miller Refuse Service's coverage gradually expanded to five counties.

The truck wash was another operation that Miller used frequently and eventually purchased. Professional image was important to the company's vitality - and Miller was a stickler for having clean trucks. As the company grew, he said, he did not want to tie up his equipment while drivers waited in line to have their trucks cleaned.

For 17 years, the company also leased and operated a local landfill, but closed its operations in 1980 to concentrate more on hauling and recycling. "In order for us to comply with the law, we got into recycling and discovered we could control the waste stream," Miller said. "We show our customers that if they have any product that can be recycled, we do that."

Rigorous Recycling The impressive recycled paper quantities sited in the company's recorded greeting come from the firm's 3,000 commercial accounts - many of whose recycling programs were established by Miller. "These programs can be as simple as putting a separate container at their facility for recyclable materials to something more elaborate," said Ronald Miller Jr., vice president.

Miller's clients place their recyclables and other waste materials in dumpsters or roll-off containers; depending upon the business type, collection frequency ranges between one and six days per week. Such flexibility is key for meeting the needs of restaurants and some manufacturers, who prefer having their refuse and recyclables collected often.

Burgeoning recycling business, however, hasn't always been the norm for the company. "In the 1960s we hauled a lot of loose corrugated," said Miller. "The brokers were cutting us out of the market. I had a problem with them cutting us out." Miller's solution was to buy one of its main brokers, Mark's Paper Stock, in 1986 and to promote paper recycling among the commercial customer base.

Aside from paper, other recyclables including metal, glass, aluminum and plastics also are essential to Miller's operations. Indeed, the company has learned that a diverse waste stream is an asset. From the commercial, industrial and residential waste streams, the company extracts scrap iron, copper and brass products, commodes, scrap steel and aluminum chairs, among other odds and ends. In one week, Miller said, the residential trash stream produced 24 tons of discarded electric motors.

In fact, for most of the company's 40,000 residential customers, recycling is easy. They throw their trash away and recyclables are extracted, producing what Miller claimed is four times the quantity of curbside collection. (Only a couple of municipalities have contracts with Miller, and they operate separate recycling programs. The rest of Miller's customers are the residents themselves.)

The result of Miller's recycling efforts is an overall 17 percent reduction in the waste stream. This figure doesn't account for the total volume, Miller said, because a great deal of corrugated fiber materials is never source separated. By 1997, the firm hopes to recycle as much as 50 percent to 60 percent of the waste stream, using waste paper to make fuel pellets and garbage to make ethanol.

The fuel pellets would be made from non-recyclable waste paper materials such as cereal boxes. "Right now we're ... testing for local stoke users," Miller said. One potential buyer is considering using 4,500 tons of pellets annually. Output from Miller's operations is projected to be around 600 tons per day. Ethanol, which can be made from wet garbage, has the potential to be generated in quantities of 50 gallons per one ton of waste, Miller said.

The company's processing operation would fuel these money-making ventures. Inside its 1,000-ton-per-day transfer station and recycling center, manual separation of residential and commercial waste takes place on a picking line, while an eddy current separator removes ferrous materials. Another recycling line is devoted entirely to corrugated paper materials.

The transfer station, a former meat packing plant that was converted in 1974, provides rooms for storage and chutes for baling above an expansive tipping floor. The tipping floor was revamped and renovated in 1991.

A Household Word Aside from making an effort to upgrade its facilities and equipment, Miller has made an on-going effort to build a positive public image. Be-cause so many of Miller Refuse Service's customers are households, the company strives to make its name a household word.

The company recently achieved this by encouraging employees to volunteer for the renovation of a nearby elementary school. One Fri-day evening a month for several months, volunteers painted classrooms inside the 75-year-old building. In addition, the company supports local sports programs and helped to build a football field.

Just as the company has polished its public image, its marketing strategies also have become more sophisticated. Recently, it developed a new approach to acquiring and servicing commercial and industrial clients - something on the order of a non-contract, no pressure agreement. "This is ... new for us, but we feel our customers are disenchanted with typical contract agreements," said Miller Jr.

The Service Promise and Price Guarantee are different than longer, binding contracts. Services are agreed upon and prices are guaranteed for six months or one year. Overall, the agreement encourages more communication between the customer and the service provider. "We feel the more we talk with customers, the better off we are," said Miller Jr.

Added the elder Miller in summary: "We don't have plans to stand still. If you're not aggressive, you go backward. Our goal is to build our customer base and continue to recycle more of the waste stream."

When a waste hauler must change its services due to updated regulations or fluctuations in recyclables markets, its staff is often faced with numerous calls from customers seeking explanations. As if the days weren't busy enough already, answering these calls can be time-consuming and repetitive.

Then again, such calls also may be a golden opportunity to enhance customer service. Considering that the average hold time for customers calling a business reportedly is 30 seconds, if a business receives 100 calls a day, the result is more than 200 hours of hold time a year. It makes sense for haulers to use this time to communicate with callers and, at the same time, reduce caller frustration and hang-ups.

Typical month-to-month messages include regulatory updates, guidelines to reduce contaminants in recyclables, service tips and statistics to re-enforce participation in recycling programs, as well as information on new programs, schedule changes and seasonal tips.

When the Blizzard of '96 struck the East Coast, for example, many waste haulers used messages to inform callers about changes in residential pickup schedules and to remind customers to keep commercial containers clear of ice and snow. Some also suggested avoiding the use of white trash bags that could be lost in the snow. When the snow stopped and regular service resumed, many haulers used messages to thank customers for their patience during the storm.

Haulers also can use messages to illustrate the effectiveness of recycling programs. When callers hear they could help save 500,000 trees a week simply by recycling Sunday newspapers, they begin to get excited about recycling programs. In addition, messages on-hold can positively affect a waste company's bottom line. When callers learn the facts about recycling, contamination is reduced, marketability increases and the program's overall efficiency improves.

When selecting a vendor for on-hold messages, a hauler should evaluate the company's staff. Do they stay current on industry news and information? Be sure their writers can regularly provide you with clear, informative messages. Other important factors include waste industry experience, reliable service, production quality and technical support.

Last but not least, make sure the music used during hold messages is fully licensed. Playing the radio or unlicensed music is illegal and substantial fines can result. Include fully licensed music in the written contract with your on-hold vendor.