Getting started in the waste hauling business is an exciting and often daunting proposition, but doing your homework, knowing your costs and finding the right equipment will go a long way toward achieving your goals.

Kirk Warren

Whether residential or commercial, the waste collection services industry continues to grow steadily year after year.  According to the Environmental Resource and Education Foundation (EREF), the solid waste industry contributes nearly $100 billion, 1 million jobs and just over 1 percent of U.S. GDP to the nation’s economy. Over the past five years, waste collection services have benefited from rising industrial, construction and commercial business activity, leading to greater waste production and driving demand.

Given this rapid growth and the relatively low barriers to entry, many entrepreneurs are considering starting their own waste hauling operations. While it may seem simple, trash hauling is a capital-intensive enterprise, requiring thoughtful equipment investments.  Unless you are sitting on a ton of cash, you cannot do everything at once and need to make strategic purchases over time.

But, fear not! There are resources and experts out there who can help you think through your needs and make the best choices by focusing on value rather than cost for the long haul. The following article offers guidance to choose the right equipment to help ensure your success as a hauler.

Pick Your Niche

The first step in choosing the right equipment for your needs is to decide which area of waste hauling you will focus on—small hauls, residential, commercial or roll-off (large volume containers).  These decisions can be based on the type of contract you are likely to secure, but remember that many residential contacts (especially with municipalities) include some degree of commercial pick up at places like municipal offices or community hospitals, so consider both residential and commercial equipment needs. Since roll-offs are used to haul larger material volumes, often heavy construction and demolition waste, they require heavy duty equipment. So if there is no immediate opportunity, it may be best to grow into a roll-off business.

Buy Versatile Equipment that Can Grow with You

At a minimum, to get started, you will need residential carts, a few commercial containers and a truck. The type of truck you buy depends on how big you want to be and how quickly you want to grow. Budget is, of course, a major factor in purchasing decisions, but it is better to spend the money to buy a slightly higher capacity or more powerful piece of equipment now than to have to replace it in a year or two.

Choose the Right Type of Truck

A reliable truck is the heart of any hauler’s business. The type of truck you choose will determine how much you can haul, how far you can haul it and how easy it is to load and unload. The most important decision here is whether to purchase a front-load, rear-load or side-load truck or employ a pickup truck with modified equipment (which will only work with small loads and is not suited to municipal contracts).  While front-load trucks cost more upfront than rear-loaders, they require only one person to load, saving time and money in the long run. Rear load trucks are lighter and easier to maneuver, making them the best option for rural routes or roads with lower weight limits. Side load trucks have made huge inroads in the past 20 years.  While they are great time savers for residential routes, they have limited commercial capacity and will not typically accommodate containers larger than 3 yards, making them a poor choice for those looking to move into larger collection.

“Many haulers start with a rear-loader to save money, but inside two years, most end up having to buy or wishing they had bought a front-load truck.  My best advice is to buy for the future,” noted Wastequip Dealer Craig Kelly of Kelly Equipment.

Capacity and power are also very important. Generally, a light-duty truck will work for most starting out in residential hauling but buying a heavier duty truck will give you an opportunity to easily expand into commercial hauling, if the opportunity or desire arises. Versatility, including the ability to add-on options after the fact or hang more axles as needed, is critical in eliminating the need for different truck purchases in the near future. Fuel efficiency is another key consideration, as savings from a set route will add up over time.

Do Not Overbuy

It is important to avoid the temptation to overbuy a truck with unnecessary options like GPS systems, tracking capabilities and at-home visibility when first starting out.  These are generally best suited for large hauling companies who can use the analytics. Used trucks also make a lot of sense for those just starting out and can be easily found and purchased through municipalities and local auctions.

Kelly adds, “When buying a truck, remember that you’re actually getting paid to take the trash away when you say you will. Spend your money on reliability, not extra bells and whistles.”

Remember that the Quality of Your Carts will Largely Determine Your Success

Cart choice is perhaps the most critical factor in ease of collection, and there are wide variances in features, design and quality in this area.  In this case, you really do get what you pay for.  Look for high quality carts that have added features and safety measures, like no sharp edges and reflective tape.  More importantly, look for ones that are easier to maneuver and load, and are stackable with their wheels on for more economical storage and faster deployment. Ruggedness and durability mean the carts will need to be changed out less often, saving you time and money, so invest in heavy-duty carts.

Carts are also the most tangible way the residents you ultimately serve will interact with you as a hauler. To increase their satisfaction, look for ergonomically balanced carts, that are easy to roll, lift and get to the curb, as well as durable and nice looking. While most haulers just starting out stick to one cart size, as the business grows, it is important to think about multiple sizes to find the carts that are best suited to various types of waste, from recycling to organics. Carts that offer latches and seals to prevent odors from escaping or animals from entering them are a huge plus.

Invest in Good Containers

Steel containers follow the same rule as carts. Container purchases are a capital intensive, long-term investment and should be built to last for many years. Steel commercial containers are preferred, and, while all of these containers will eventually start to rust out, quality craftsmanship and durable materials will ensure that they have a much longer service life and are easy to haul. Experts suggest buying containers with no less than a 10-gauge floor and 12-gauge sides. Kelly suggests purchasing containers that have funnels and gussets on the lifting sleeve to help guide the fork into the pocket to make lining up to the truck easier. “It may seem like a small time saver, but when you have to make 100 plus stops per day, being able to easily line the truck and container up straight-on is a very big deal.”

Plastic front-end loaders are a good choice for organic waste or in areas where moisture or noise are concerns. Given their lighter weight and easier maneuverability, plastic containers are a good choice for safety reasons if the driver is likely to have to get out of the truck and move the container.

Hoists Help

While hoists are needed in heavy-duty applications, like hauling roll-off containers, lighter duty hoists can be a great option for smaller operators. One trail hoist option offers the perfect solution for small independent waste haulers looking for a versatile piece of equipment to start their own operations and move up to larger products as their business grows. Light duty roll-off trailers are a cost-effective option for hauling smaller containers offering durability, maneuverability and ease of loading, dumping and unloading containers. They are quite versatile because the owner can use just about any truck that has towing capabilities to haul containers and other equipment including standard maintenance platforms, flat bottom and or tub style boxes.

Consider Roll-Off and Compaction

Deciding to do roll-off work is a riskier proposition, but one that can yield huge benefits.   Most roll-off work typically does not involve a contract, may be more seasonal in nature (especially in fields like construction) and requires finding customers using open top containers. It also requires investing in the heaviest duty equipment, which can be significantly more expensive. However, roll-off capability can add new revenue streams, especially in being able to haul compacted loads, which can be scheduled and quite lucrative.

Similarly, although many haulers shy away from compaction, largely due to the upfront cost of buying a compactor, compaction is an excellent add-on service that can generate predictable revenue.  “A lot of haulers I talk to are spooked by compaction, but I have never met a single hauler who went down this path and ended up regretting it.  Although you might not want to start with compaction, it is definitely something to consider as your business grows.”

To Tarp or Not to Tarp? 

If you are hauling roll-off containers, you will need to be aware of the fact that an ever-increasing number of states require that loads are covered when being transported. Smaller haulers need to be aware of these rules and regulations as failure to comply can result in fines. Look for durable and fast-operating tarps from a manufacturer with a large dealer network, strong technical support and easy parts ordering.

Effectively Manage Routes and Equipment to Increase Efficiency

Smart haulers know that route efficiency is a major contributor to profitability and efficiency.  There are several good software options available that can be installed on any computer. These will allow you to optimize and reconfigure your route as new pick-ups are added, saving time and money. Additionally, there are a number of technologies that allow you to track your containers including RFID and GPS- and camera-equipped sensors.

Remember that There Will Be Problems

Even the best equipment will need servicing from time to time. When purchasing your equipment, think about the service network and the availability of original and aftermarket parts. Top dealerships generally offer quick repairs, and part dealers have broad availability of a wide range of parts with easy ordering and fast delivery. Time is money, so the faster you can get your equipment up and running, the better.  Do business with companies that can offer you that.

Ask for Help

Rather than trying to go it alone, talk to other haulers to get their input and seek out the counsel of a strong, local dealer or dealer network.  These dealers, many of whom have years of expertise and have helped hundreds of haulers in all phases of their business lifecycle, can provide guidance on everything from contracts and pricing to whether to buy used or new and which brand products offer the best long-term value. Organizations like the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) and the Independent Haulers Association have very active members and resources to guide and inform your choices.

Getting started in the waste hauling business is an exciting and often daunting proposition, but doing your homework, knowing your costs and finding the right equipment will go a long way toward achieving your goals.

Kirk Warren is the director of product management for the steel division of Wastequip (Charlotte, NC). He is responsible for product development, product optimization and marketing of the steel product line. Before joining Wastequip, Kirk worked 10 years on the hauling side of the waste industry as a sales manager and trainer for Republic Waste Services and Allied Waste. He can be reached at [email protected]

As a leading North American manufacturer of waste handling equipment, Wastequip has worked with thousands of haulers. For more information on making the best choices for your needs, visit