You could say that garbage runs through Dennis Hein's blood. The former director of solid waste management for Spokane, Wash., is a third-generation trash man, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
“The clan got into the garbage business because they were farmers,” he says. “They'd go to grocery stores and restaurants, and get slop for the pigs for free, but the tradeoff was they had to take the rest of the trash. It didn't take long for them to figure out there was more money in the trash business than the pig business.”
His grandfather started collecting on routes with horses in the 1920s, and soon started using trucks, making 125 stops per day. “He charged $1.25 a month for residential pickup, which in those times was a fortune,” says Hein.
Hein jumped into the business as a youngster, joining his cousin Buck in loading brush and other debris in trucks for their fathers. He later attended college with an eye toward a solid-waste career. While his degrees in business and finance proved instrumental in navigating the intricacies of dealing with collection routes, costs, and budgeting, most of his education took place off campus.
“The finite variables of collection and efficiency are not recognized in the classroom. You need to have been there and done that,” he says.
Advances in technology enabled the family business to grow. Hydraulic dumping enabled Grandpa Hein to serve 300 homes per day with a rear-loading vehicle. The introduction of side loaders and other innovations bumped that number to 400 homes a day, then 500. The appearance of high-density compaction equipment in the 1970s brought that number to 600. Now, with the advent of automated collection, a truck can service 800 homes in a workday.
“Garbage rates have been held down because we've innovated,” he says. “We've been able to use technology to increase service rather than the rate. Basically, we've been charging about the same because we're still making more money.”
But now, according to Hein, technology might have taken the industry as far as it can go.
“We've hit the wall,” he says. “The ability to move and collect has become finite. We have the ability to load faster than we can start and stop the truck. Now, there's a deadman switch, and you can only dump so fast. Trucks have become so large that turning has become difficult. It's an industry looking for a hero.”
A likely consequence, he predicts, is that rates will increase by 10% or more to cover higher taxes and labor costs. And while he retired from his position in Spokane this year, he plans to continue to stay involved in the industry by helping solid waste managers deal with such challenges.
“I've fought my battles, and I certainly made my share of mistakes,” he says. “Now, I'd like to help others do some of the things right that I got wrong.”