They say one man's trash is another man's treasure.
And, although there may not be gold in hills of garbage, there is money to be made in the business of trash collecting in the region.
In 2006, Houston-based Waste Management reported revenue of $13.36 billion, making it the industry leader.
Fortune 500 ranks Waste Management in the 181st spot, with Phoenix-based Allied Waste Industries ranked at No. 379, with $6.03 million in revenues and Fort Lauderdale-based Republic Services coming in third in the industry at No. 639, with reported revenues of $3.07 million. Revenue totals are generated from not only residential trash collection, but commercial and industrial as well as recycling and related waste business.
On any given weekday, one of the 22,000 collection and transfer vehicles owned nationwide by Waste Management, which, according to its Web site, has the largest trucking fleet in the industry, can be found collecting trash in municipalities and rural areas across Northwest Indiana.
Alongside them are trucks from Allied Waste, once known locally as Illiana Disposal, as well as those from Chesterton-based Able Disposal, now a division of Republic.
Beyond the big boys are smaller, local companies such as Demotte-based Ooms Brothers Disposal and Performance Waste and Recycling of Crown Point.
"Competition is still good, and that's what our country's based on," Bruce James, general manager of Able Disposal, said. The largest independent solid waste hauling company in Northwest Indiana at the time it merged with Republic in 1996, Able's territory stretches from along the Lake Michigan shoreline to the north, east to St. Joseph County, west to the Illinois state line and south to the Kankakee River, James said.
"Residential is our strongest ... We lead the pack in our immediate area," James said, adding companies want their customer base to be as geographically dense as possible.
"We have a strong presence," he said of marketing through exposure.
Recently, the town of Merrillville selected Allied Waste as its sole provider.
"We had four, big companies providing residential service," Town Manager Tim Brown said, adding that the toll on streets and resulting costs were a large part of the decision to contract a single waste hauler.
"That's a component people don't understand ...The impetus truly was related to cost."
Asked whether Merrillville leaders considered operating their own, municipal trash collection service, Brown laughed. "It was considered for 30 seconds maybe," he said.
Many cities, including Hammond, Gary, East Chicago, Portage and Valparaiso, provide the service to residents.
"Throughout the industry, everyone has their own spin. Basically, it's based on what residents want," Valparaiso Public Works Director Bill Oeding said of whether municipalities should provide trash collection. "As far as I've known, it's always been a city function here," he added.
While trash collection and recycling is intertwined with other public works department functions, Oeding said the $9 monthly fee covers costs.
Valparaiso is the first municipality in the area to have fully automated trash collection vehicles operating alongside semi-automatic units. That innovation has allowed the city to reduce the work force and has provided savings in labor and workman's compensation, he said.
James, who said that equipment improvements and technology lead the list of major changes in his 23 years in the waste industry, noted that Able is the only Northwest Indiana provider that is fully automated.
"The equipment is better for our employees," James said, adding that the common complaints of back strains and twisted ankles have been dramatically reduced.
Also, the one-person vehicles for residential trash collection are driven on the right side.
"When the driver drives from the right side of the cab, he is protected by the truck when he exits the cab," James said. He added that Able's company policy prohibits employees from crossing the street or from snaking; that is, driving the collection vehicle to the left side of the road for closer access. "That protects the drivers and the general public," he said.
Like Valparaiso, Able's decision to go to fully automatic vehicles has reduced costs through a reduction in workman's compensation claims as well as lower insurance premiums.
Donald Haan of Highland who started Illiana Disposal in 1959, said his sons and a son-in-law remain in the industry in Arizona, Michigan and Indiana. He said it is like any other business.
"It takes a lot of hard work," he said, adding, " We did without for a long time."