Trash and Cash

Small, independent garbage haulers have always had to battle the big companies, but now they have a new foe: the City of Miami

Carter will only say that his company is "waiting to see how things shake out." Republic is already working in Miami under the names of Imperial Sanitation Services and Lazaro's Recycling, companies with which it recently merged.

Meanwhile Miami's solid-waste director, Clarance Patterson, insists that having exclusive franchise areas will produce so much savings that companies will be able to pay the city more, make more, and not increase costs to consumers.

"The city has the right to provide all [trash hauling] services," Patterson says in his office a few days after the meeting. "If the city wanted to say tomorrow, 'You are going to go out of business, and we are going to take it over,' they can do that. The ones who are threatening to sue, let them sue. It's a free country. If they want to pay their lawyers, go ahead."

Patterson, or Mr. P, as his staff knows him, has been involved in the garbage business for 39 years, mainly, he says, in the public sector as a city and county administrator. His ample girth is testament to his love of cooking. In fact he used to run a barbecue joint called Pat's on Biscayne Boulevard, and he talks about cooking in the same way he talks about garbage: with the voice of authority. Patterson claims the barbecue in South Florida doesn't measure up to that in Georgia, where he's from. The problem, he points out, is the chefs don't cook the meat long enough. They're too interested in volume over quality. He sees no irony here, even though that's an argument the small haulers use against the majors. "I would say they are two different universes," he contends.

Patterson has never hauled garbage, but no one in the Southeast knows as much about it as he does, he declares. "My 39 years in the business, [the haulers] can't bullshit me," he boasts. "I've been around too long. Too many haulers come and go in this business, and they're going to tell me, 'We can't gain nothing by this'? Bullshit! You can gain by it. I grant you that some of the small haulers, if they don't become more innovative, might lose some accounts in the city, but they don't have that many accounts in the first damn place."

Prices will remain low, he insists, because of the benefits gained from a consolidated route. Again, he points out, most haulers have accounts in other areas. Franchising in the city of Miami won't really put anyone out of business. All they have to do, Patterson offers, is merge and try to compete like the majors.

It's a few days after Christmas and Eric Bohnenblost has just picked up another box. The container overflows with debris, just the kind of messiness Krista Woods, the city's chief sanitation inspector, is trying to control. "The reason you get overflow conditions," she explains, "is that the businesses take the cheap way out." Instead of requesting the level of service his business really needs, the owner contracts for less.

A franchise system might guarantee that businesses contract for the level of service they really need. Still, she doesn't fault all the haulers. Service is uneven among them, she admits, but it's the integrity of the company, not its size, that determines who does a good job. In the past year, the City of Miami has begun to crack down, sending out a team of inspectors to ensure that business owners and haulers satisfy city garbage codes. Woods says the heightened scrutiny is already getting results. Fines can range from $50 for failing to mark a container with the hauler's name to $1000 for illegal dumping.

Near the Medley dump, where Bohnenblost will eventually leave his load, he passes MacPac's former yard, which the company rented from Imperial Sanitation Services until last year, when Imperial merged with Republic and the small hauler was told to leave.

In late December MacPac itself merged with another small hauler, Rainbow Waste Services. The McWilliams brothers are just getting back into commercial garbage service within the City of Miami, where until recently they only hauled construction waste. The senior McWilliams sold his garbage route in Miami to pay for his retirement. As part of the sale, MacPac signed a ten-year noncompete clause with the buyer, WasteX, and the clause has just expired. David McWilliams is hoping that the merger will do one of two things: make the company a more attractive morsel for a major to consume, or give it a better chance to compete. Unfortunately most of Rainbow's accounts are in the City of Miami and could be lost under the new franchise proposal.

McWilliams is doing everything he can to survive. He's not ready to give up the garbage business quite yet. "I've been doing it so long, it's in my blood," he says over breakfast in a small Hispanic cafeteria, the likes of which can be found all over Miami. The food is cheap and the atmosphere convivial, the product of a familiar clientele and a personal touch. It's 11:00 a.m. and the hauler is halfway through his workday. His face is creased with worry. He points to this restaurant as the kind of place that might be driven out of business if garbage rates, a significant budget item, start to rise.

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