Texas disposal/recycling firm is wild about coexistence

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Far too often, waste management companies setting up a new operation choose to see area residents who voice misgivings or opposition to the new development as adversaries. In preparation for establishing a landfill/composting site in rural Austin, Texas Disposal Systems, Inc., did quite the opposite, going to impressive lengths to prove their corporate neighborliness. They did so by being up front with everyone involved, by being open to residents’ suggestions, and by acknowledging that the company’s actions can, in fact, seriously impact those in the area. To ensure that impact would be minimal at best, the company situated its disposal and composting areas on a massive 1200-acre site. The fact that they dedicated 70% of that acreage to a buffer zone is commendable; how they chose to do so — incorporating into it a ranch, entertainment pavilion, skeet shooting range and wild game preserve — speaks volumes about both TDS’ approach to business and its PR savvy.

Modest Beginnings
Formed in Austin in 1977 as a trash collection business, Texas Disposal Systems (TDS) was the brainchild of Bob and Jim Gregory who took it from its modest beginnings to one of the state’s largest waste collection, treatment and disposal companies. Today, TDS has four sites, two in Austin, two in San Antonio, employs hundreds of people and, through its composting operation, is successfully marketing a full line of topsoil products. As part of that composting effort, TDS takes in a broad range of material from a 100-mile radius around Austin. According to Jim Doersam, the firm’s Director of Operations for Texas Organic Products, the production end of the composting business, that feedstock can literally be almost anything.

“Because the ultimate goal is to provide a feedstock that will keep the compost active, the gamut of what we take in is huge. That can include landclearing debris, cardboard from commercial customers, food processing waste, and rinds from companies that pre-slice and pre-package fruits and vegetables. From a local dairy, we get 7,000 gallons of milk fat and primary rinse water every day which also makes a great feedstock. Even road kill is used, since we’ve learned exactly when to introduce it into the pile, when to turn the pile and to regularly monitor for pathogen reduction to ensure it is safe. Any of the material that is not liquid in nature is first run through a Morbark Model 1300 tub grinder we have onsite. This grinder and two additional Morbark units we have at our other sites are key components in our day-to-day operation.”

Brand Loyalty
The grinding operation at TDS has been in place since 1992 when the company purchased its first unit — a Morbark 1200 — for grinding tree and brush waste diverted from landfill disposal. At that time, the composting facet of the operation consisted of grinding the wood and green waste, letting it sit and waiting for it to produce a saleable product. That continued for about five years until 1997 when TDS decided to enter the composting realm in earnest.

“Even though the Model 1300 is the workhorse of Morbark’s tub grinder line, the 1200 is a machine that they should be really proud of,” says Doersam. “We ran that unit from 1992 through 2000 when we purchased our first Model 1300, and even at that point the grinder was still performing well. We gave it a total overhaul in 2000, and sent it to the City of Austin’s Hornsby Bend facility where it is still grinding today.“

In fact, adds Doersam, TDS’ decision to purchase first one, then another Model 1300 was solely based on the steady, reliable performance they got from the 1200. “In much the same way as Southwest Airlines relies exclusively on Boeing 737s, we feel a level of confidence with Morbark for our grinding equipment.”

Anything is Game
When TDS selected a site for its landfill and composting operations, it picked the 1200-acre Creedmore Ranch to minimize the effect an operation such as this would have on nearby residents. The Gregory Brothers knew that their company would be under intense scrutiny, so it went to great lengths to ensure that debris from the landfill and odor from the composting operation would not be a problem. Equally aware of aesthetics, they avoided surrounding the area with a chain link fence which they felt would make the site appear prison-like, opting instead for a game fence, a barrier with smaller holes in it designed to keep predators away from wild game. With that fence in place, TDS made the next logical move: it stocked the area with exotic game. Doing so was a stroke of genius; the exotic game ranch has proven extremely popular with everyone who visits the site, says Doersam.

“The neighbors from the immediate surrounding area love it and we get visitors from out of town who make it a point to schedule site tours,” he says. “The current park population is around 1,600 animals of 30 different species from Africa, Asia Minor, Australia, England, Israel, India, Middle East, New Zealand, and Pakistan — as well as some from right here in Texas. These include: bison, longhorn cattle, emu, impala, zebra, ostrich, wildebeest, gazelle, antelope and more. The site also features a fully-stocked fish pond. This project was designed simply to compliment the buffer zone around the processing sites, but it has taken on a life of its own.”

The Sweet Smell of Success
Because one of the downsides to most any composting operation can be its odor, TDS chose to confront that problem head on as well. An aggressive turning and maintenance program controlling every facet of the composting process keeps odors to a minimum.

“People invariably say: ‘you’re next to a landfill, you can do whatever you want,’” says Doersam. “Nothing could be farther from the truth; we are held to a much higher standard because of who we are, where we are and what we do. In a landfill, an offending item or area can simply be covered with dirt and the problem is solved. That’s not the case in a composting operation. To prove how committed we are to making odor a non-issue, we built a $2 million pavilion and conference facility
immediately downwind from the landfill and compost operation. Essentially, we made that part of our marketing strategy: when we are entertaining we point out to our guests that there is no odor. People are genuinely impressed that the compost site is that close yet one would never know it.”

TDS’ pavilion and conference center is busy on a regular basis playing host to fundraisers, civic gatherings, and educational activities. On average, more than 8,000 people use the facility each year.

Looking Ahead at TDS
The Gregory Brothers’ single-truck hauling business has expanded to a four-site operation: the landfill/composting facility and a tree/brush site, both in Austin; and a transfer station and biosolids composting facility, both in San Antonio. The company has also formed a new division called Garden-Ville, a subsidiary that produces and markets organic gardening products including compost, soil blends, fertilizers and organic pest controls for both horticulture professionals and home gardeners.

“We are constantly looking for ways to improve as well as ways to expand our scope of operation,” says Doersam. “Though we maintain an aggressive grinding schedule at all our sites, we have also undertaken a certain amount of contract grinding to keep the machines’ idle time to a minimum. A good example of that is the work we do for the city of Georgetown, about a half hour north of Austin. They are a smaller community of about 30,000 and generate about 15,000 to 20,000 yards of brush a year; it would make little economic sense for them to own a grinder. Instead, they just stockpile their material, we come out a couple times a year and take care of their pile in about a week. In this area, grinding is an extremely competitive business but, like every facet of our operation, if we see a benefit to be derived from it, and it will ultimately make us a better company, we will make it happen.”

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