In the Spotlight: Athens Services: Four Generations of Innovation

From humble beginnings to the largest independent recycling and solid waste services company in Los Angeles County, Athens Services has introduced near-zero emissions vehicles to its fleet, continued to use innovative technology to process mixed waste and to enhance recyclability and has been at the forefront of the organics movement, while also celebrating the many people that have given their entire career to work with the organization.

Founded in 1957, Athens Services is a local, family-owned waste collection and recycling company that has been a fixture in the greater Los Angeles community for the past 61 years. The company is owned by the Arakelian family, who have operated Athens Services for four generations. They began waste hauling in the Athens District of Los Angeles and the community inspired them to name the business “Athens Services.”

The family kept the name Athens Services to remind them of their humble beginnings and roots in the Los Angeles area. Today, members of the executive team also include Greg Loughnane, President, and Gary M. Clifford, Executive Vice President. The company currently has more than 1,500 employees, all of whom reside in southern California.

As the largest independent recycling and solid waste services company in Los Angeles County, Athens Services serves more than 250,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers. They are responsible for exclusive recycling, solid waste, green waste and organics services in 26 franchise jurisdictions, and are active in 18 cities in non-exclusive/open franchise markets. The company also conducts street sweeping services in 27 areas throughout the region. In addition, Athens Services offers special waste and construction and demolition recovery services.

With a modern fleet of hundreds of collection, hauling and container vehicles, 71 percent of Athens Services’ vehicles (including all street sweeping trucks) use clean energy alternative fuel (compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas). By mid-2018, that number will rise to 80 percent, as the company has invested in a phase-in plan to convert the entire collection fleet to CNG.

In 2017, Athens Services also introduced near-zero emissions vehicles to its fleet. These CNG vehicles contain the cleanest available heavy truck engines in the world—90 percent cleaner than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s strictest emissions standard. More than 100 of the trucks used in Athens Services’ fleet in the City of Los Angeles’ recycLA program are near-zero emissions vehicles. Other green features of the vehicles include:

  • Each near-zero emissions vehicle reduces greenhouse gases equivalent to taking 225 cars off the road.
  • Cummins engines reduce NOx emissions by 90 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 49 percent.
  • Closed crankcase ventilation (CCV) reduces engine-related methane emissions by 70 percent.
  • Power-on-demand hydraulic systems manufactured by Heil reduce fuel consumption.

Processing Recyclable Material

Athens Services’ combination of experience and infrastructure allows them to provide both source separation and mixed waste processing. Operations facilities consist of hauling yards, container yards and two materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Athens Services pioneered the use of MRFs in the southern California area as the first hauler to open a MRF in the region in 1996 (City of Industry MRF).

The company also operates one of the largest composting facilities on the west coast, American Organics. Their compost is a blend of organics material, including a mix of green waste, wood waste and food scraps, and is OMRI Listed® and licensed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

City of Industry MRF

Athens Services’ City of Industry MRF is one of the highest-diverting mixed-waste MRFs in southern California, able to process 5,000 tons per day. One of very few in the Los Angeles area, it is equipped with a food-waste sorting system that processes approximately 100 tons per day and three recycling lines.

In 2012, the facility replaced its lighting with more efficient fixtures, reducing annual energy usage for lighting by 30 percent. In 2017, the company began replacing skylights with upgrades that let in more lumens of light, while also being easier to clean and maintain. The facility also makes extensive use of variable-frequency motor drives to save energy.

Sun Valley MRF

Located in the Sun Valley area of Los Angeles, Athens Services’ Sun Valley MRF is one of the most technologically advanced facilities for recovering recyclables from mixed waste in the world. This facility is equipped with recycling lines that can easily process 1,000 tons per day of mixed waste for recovery.

Featuring the newest optical recognition and material separation technologies, it was the first MRF in the world to use Bulk Handling Systems’ (BHS) Max-AI™ waste-sorting robot.

The Sun Valley MRF is also southern California’s first solar-powered recycling facility; a 200kW solar power collection system renovation was completed in 2017. The facility received LEED Certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in 2018 due to environmental efficiencies that help the MRF conserve water, energy and resources. The MRF has also been recognized with numerous awards, including the 2016 SWANA Silver Excellence Award for Recycling Systems.

Irwindale MRF

Athens recently signed a long-term contract with the City of Irwindale to permit, design, construct and operate a state-of-the-art, 6,000-tons-per-day MRF. The MRF will supply an estimated 500 jobs, and will provide regional training for high schools and junior high schools on the science and technology of recycling. It will also have the latest robotic and high-end sorting technology, as well as newer organics waste technology. The company plans to complete construction on this MRF in 2019.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

Once Athens Services first received word that contamination requirements from China were being revised (known as “National Sword”), the company started changing gears to find alternative markets. “Athens did ship a lot of plastic and paper commodities to China and, unfortunately, now there are currently about four or five different grades of plastic and a significant amount of mixed paper that is being rejected,” says Gary Clifford, Executive Vice President. “We have been successful in finding alternative markets for these materials, but they are a little more costly to get to and not quite as advantageous to us as the Chinese market has been.”

Although the change has impacted the company, Athens Services has continued to use innovative technology to process mixed waste and to enhance recyclability. “We are working on implementing different technologies and strategies to get the most diversion from the products that we process,” says Clifford. Athens’ MRFs can run comingled recyclables or just trash over their sorting lines. They have the technology to slow down machines or identify certain types of plastic or paper, which yields a cleaner, higher-end product.

Currently, California is focused on organics waste and is trying to remove food waste from landfills. In 2016, Assembly Bill 1826 was passed by Governor Brown as a regulation to remove organics away from the waste stream. At the beginning of 2017, anyone that generated four or more cubic yards of organics waste had to have a plan to recycle it. This included restaurants, grocery stores, flower shops, cemeteries and universities—any large properties that have a large amount of turf or grass that needs to be trimmed.

Fortunately, Athens Services chose to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to organics, and has been at the forefront of this movement for at least 15 years. “We have restaurant routes where our team of people goes in and creates a site-specific plan for organics collection, which includes signage, containers, information on food donation options, bilingual employee training and other resources,” says Clifford.

To support strong recycling markets and prevent valuable resources from going to landfills, Athens Services also works with commercial businesses to decrease their waste footprint. When choosing among single-use disposables at the commercial level, the company can provide a preferred product list based on available infrastructure and current market recyclability and compostability. “We encourage customers to purchase products with recycled content and partner with distributors or manufacturers that offer ‘take-back’ programs,’” says Clifford.

One example of how Athens Services is helping business clients get to zero waste is its partnership with the Los Angeles Coliseum (home field for the Los Angeles Rams and University of Southern California Trojans football teams). Two years ago, when the Coliseum decided to go zero waste, Athens staff, Coliseum staff and vendors worked together to ensure that all products being sold could be recycled or composted, particularly items at concessions stands. “Our role was to provide education on what products could be properly recycled or composted, and to also haul the waste. It was a great collaboration that achieved its zero waste goal last year,” says Clifford.

Incorporating Training and Safety

From the fleet, to processing facilities, to its offices, safety is paramount at Athens Services. To protect its employees, visitors and the communities that they serve, the company provides and maintains a safe work environment with strict adherence to local, state and federal regulations.

The company recently incorporated the position of Driver Safety Officer (DSO) at each hauling yard. DSOs report directly to the Director of Safety and are certified as having passed the Smith System Driver Improvement Institute safety training.

DSOs establish and promote a safe, secure, accident-free and healthy work environment for all personnel by working with new and existing drivers to eliminate on-the-job injuries, accidents, property damage and environmental accidents. DSOs are also responsible for the implementation, maintenance and enforcement of all training requirements.

In addition, Athens drivers attend weekly meetings on different safety topics, including proper operation of equipment, improving driving methods and any new pertinent information affecting working and safety conditions, such as new safety regulations and routing information.

In order to keep safety in the forefront of everyone’s minds, Athens Services regularly provides recognition and rewards for behavior that exemplifies safety and service standards, including:

  • Quarterly, drivers and helpers are recognized based upon their ability to meet safety goals.
  • Each December, safety boots are awarded to employees with excellent safety records.
  • Monthly awards, including plaques and gift certificates, are given to drivers with outstanding safety records.

Athens Services’ fleet is also installing the latest collision-prevention technology. “Our trucks are equipped with event-recording devices that monitor front view, the interior and all sides of our vehicles,” says Clifford. “It gathers information from outside of the vehicle, tracks our fleet via GPS and furnishes telemetry data in real time. We benefit from the data analysis of non-preventable collisions, which helps identify specific training needs.”

Maintenance Programs

Athens Services’ maintenance programs are managed by the Director of Maintenance, who supervises the entire fleet and specifies, procures, equips and tests all vehicles and equipment. The routine repair and daily maintenance activities are managed at each location by a Maintenance Manager, Shift Supervisors, Parts Clerks and Shop Administrators. The management group’s main areas of focus are:

  • Department Scheduling—Matching available headcount to equipment availability.
  • Preventive Maintenance/Repair Scheduling – Ensures all company vehicles and equipment are operating at the highest standards at all times. Program includes preventive maintenance inspections, driver reporting/Driver Vehicle Inspection Reports (DVIR), repairs and road calls.
  • Inventory/Repair Control—The latest maintenance software programs are used to ensure that inspections and maintenance are done at the correct intervals, repair types and reasons are tracked for analysis, expenses are charged correctly and inventory is kept at the right quantities.
  • Mechanic and Maintenance Employee Training

Outreach Strategies

To conduct community outreach, Athens Services uses its Government Affairs team. Each Athens city or area has at least one designated Government Affairs representative, who works with city staff to ensure program goals are being met, and coordinates education and outreach strategies for that area. Representatives routinely visit civic groups, school assemblies, homeowner associations, multi-family complexes and businesses to promote recycling and resource management and participate in demonstrations and civic events. They also provide each city or town council with regular updates on outreach, event participation and diversion specific to that contract area, as well as the general state of the waste and recycling industry, new technologies, and impactful government actions and regulations.

Educational Programs and Presentations

Recognizing that education is key to understanding the virtues of sustainable living, recycling and composting, Athens Services partners with cities, schools, and community groups in each of their stakeholder communities to provide expert speakers and educational outreach that furthers the objectives set forth in the 4 Rs: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rot (aka compost).” Educational outreach programs are tailored to meet the needs of individual communities and typically include interactive presentations. Athens Services produces a wide variety of materials to support its education efforts, including newsletters, signage, videos, brochures, flyers, advertisements and reports. They also partake in many community events (including holiday and Earth Day celebrations), providing educational information and an outlet for community engagement.

Web-Based Outreach and Social Media Education

Through its Web site and social media platforms, Athens Services is able to engage the community and promote environmental programs, events and news. On their social media accounts, they regularly post helpful tips on how to better recycle and implement zero waste practices. Athens Services’ Web site provides many useful environmental resources and links, including food donation options and information, waste footprint calculators, waste reduction tips for the home and office and educational information.

Compost Giveaway Program

Focusing on a closed-loop system, Athens Services’ popular compost giveaway program provides nutrient-rich compost to residents, local organizations, community and school gardens, nonprofits, city events and beautification projects. Since the program’s launch in 2010, Athens Services has successfully hosted 10,000 guests and donated almost 4,000 tons of compost. The giveaways have also acted as service projects to help Boy Scouts earn merit badges.

Community E-Waste and Clothing Drop-off Events—Reuse Before Disposal

Athens Services provides residential customers with opportunities to drop-off e-waste and gently used clothing at community events. They partner with a certified third-party e-waste collector, which manages separation and recycling of all commodities. If possible, the company delivers the clothing to a local, charitable organization, such as a mission or faith-based group.

Says Clifford, “It is our goal to identify a local option that will take the entire donation and not resell the items, ensuring the clothing is given away, free of charge, to benefit the community. As an example, in Altadena we deliver the clothing to the Los Angeles Mission or the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission.”

Memberships and Philanthropy

Athens Services is not only a member of 44 Chambers of Commerce in the communities they serve, but they are also a member of 11 environmental organizations, including the U.S. Green Building Council Los Angeles, U.S. Zero Waste Business Council (founding member), California Resource and Recovery Association and California Green Communities.

The company contributes donations to local nonprofits, charitable organizations and service organizations. Employees also volunteer their time for a variety of community events and causes, including the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission, where employees feed homeless individuals at holiday events, and the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) river cleanup each spring.

What Sets Athens Services Apart

Clifford believes that Athens Services is different from other waste hauling companies because they provide both mixed waste processing and source separation to their communities. He is proud of the fact that if you look at the statewide statistics in the communities they serve, Athens is on the higher end of the diversion rate. “We’ll take all of the recyclables and categorize and process them at our plant, pulling out materials that are recyclable, whereas other companies would take the material to a landfill. I believe that is our most outstanding achievement.”

More than a third of Athens’ workforce has been with the 61-year-old company for more than 10 years. “We have 20-, 30- and 40-year employees, I think that is one of the things that differentiates us,” says Clifford. The company tries to celebrate the many people that have given their entire career to work with the organization. “When we are trying to hire and grow people, one of the things we try to instill is creativity and that bond—we are in it together,” Clifford points out.

The commitment and passion of the Arakelian family towards their business is also a major reason for their continued success, says Clifford. “This is a fourth-generation, family-run business, and that doesn’t happen very often. This family is phenomenal; in this community, they have left such a mark within the waste and recycling business. They want to stay in this business forever; they are still growing and moving forward, and having a positive impact on the environment.”

Looking Forward

Athens Services is currently working on innovative and exciting technologies to be introduced at their new Irwindale MRF, with regards to increasing the amount of diversion and recycling. In addition, one of the sections in the new facility will be open to the public, enabling merchants and residents to dispose of waste and construction and demolition materials to help them towards their individual goals.

Clifford stresses that the industry’s new message to achieve zero waste needs not only be how to recycle, but also how to reduce and reuse waste in general. The company is working to expand customer understanding beyond recycling. “You can’t just recycle to get to zero waste—that is not enough,” says Clifford. “We need to figure out how to get generators to reduce and reuse so there is less waste going to the landfill. Hopefully, at some point in time, landfills won’t even be needed and everything that we use will generate some reusable material at the end.”

For more information, contact Paola Adler, Communications Specialist, at padler@athensservices.com, or visit www.athensservices.com

To view a drone video of Athens’ Sun Valley MRF, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyfBgZOEj5w

recycLA

Several years ago, the City of Los Angeles performed a study to determine the steps needed for the city to achieve California’s goal of 75 percent recycling, composting or source reduction of solid waste by 2020. During the study, they found that there were more than 100 licensed haulers operating in Los Angeles, which meant excessive wear and tear on streets, pollution from carbon emissions and traffic congestion. The decision was made to transition to a franchise system, separating the city into 11 different zones. After a competitive RFP process, Athens Services was awarded the most zones (three zones—West Los Angeles, North Central and Harbor) and the most customers—about 22,000. The transition period was July 2017 to January 2018, and the contracts began on February 1, 2018.

“It has been a big undertaking, which has required a lot of the haulers to have communications with each other and support each other in this transition as much as possible. Because we are taking on a slightly larger market share, we hired drivers, recycling coordinators and customer service representatives, and ordered more than 100 near zero emissions vehicles,” says Clifford. “The ultimate goal is to divert materials away from landfills. It has really been a great partnership with Los Angeles Sanitation to work together to achieve those goals.”

Clifford points out that nothing of this magnitude has transpired across the country. “The City of Los Angeles is the guinea pig for this type of program. Although you do hear a lot of negativity in the news, you don’t hear a lot about the good stories.”

Some of the highlights Athens has already achieved through the program include quadrupling the number of recycling routes in their zones (previously less than 10, now more than 40), and working with local food rescue nonprofits to divert over 365,000 pounds of edible food away from landfills to feed food insecure people in Los Angeles.