In the Spotlight Cal-Waste: 90 Years Strong

As a third-generation waste and recycling company, Cal-Waste Recovery Systems prides themselves on efficiency, innovation and forward-thinking strategies, while putting their communities they serve and employees first.

As President and Owner, Dave Vaccarezza says, “Cal-Waste Recovery Systems is a 90-year old start-up.” Started by his uncle Colombo Vaccarezza in the Northern California valley back in 1927, he was initially working in the bay area with one of the trash companies when he decided to come to the valley and establish a hog ranch. At the time, the city of Lodi had once per week pickup for the dry waste and once per week for the wet waste, so Colombo would recycle much of the the dry trash in order to get the wet waste (which is now called food waste) to feed it to the hogs. This process was used as a sideline method of making some money on the hogs as well as a establishing a collection site. Unfortunately, the hogs ended up being put down in the mid-1930s due to a typhoid epidemic, so the family ended up in the trash business and have been doing that ever since.

Dave points out that there was a lot of recycling and recovery that went on the 1930s and 1940s. During the war it was very common; companies were salvaging material from the back of the truck for rags, glass and metal and the leftovers were taken out to the dump and lit on fire. As time went on, the compaction truck came on board as a result of health issues to really clean up how trash was handled in the streets, so Cal-Waste brought compaction to its own operation in 1953 and focused on doing recycling only in commercial applications. “It has come full circle; now there is a new awareness,” says Dave. “Back about 25 years ago, it seemed that society made a turn to start looking at how to manage our resources and decided that recycling is a really good way for us to help the environment and make each one of us feel good when we take our recyclables out.”

Growing up in the waste business, Dave’s father, Rudy Vaccarezza, proudly served in World War II, came back and bought a share in his brother’s company (which consisted of five partners). Eventually, each one of the partners sold their share and when his uncle passed away, Rudy’s father bought out his share and in 1969, bought out the last partner. At that time, the city of Lodi was Cal-Waste’s main contract along with some of the surrounding areas. Dave would watch his father run the business as well as work on the back of a truck and operate the paper baler on the weekends and after school. After getting really involved in the business in 1977 when he was 20, Dave had the opportunity to run the company with his father. He continued to drive the trucks and work in the facility as well as in the office performing administrative tasks and negotiating contracts. “I learned it from the inside out like my sons, Rudy, Business Development, and Casey, Facilities Operations Supervisor, and along the way made some good friends and hired some really loyal employees that have stuck with us for a lot of years. That’s really been the key to our success.”

When his father passed away in 1984, Dave’s sister, Annette, became his partner for about 20 years, building the company to about 65,000 accounts and servicing 15 different municipalities or counties in the area between San Joaquin and Sacramento County. It was at that point that they decided to downsize. However, Dave decided he wanted to hang on to a small portion of the business that was in Galt, CA and that became the nucleus and world headquarters for Cal-Waste to really re-invent themselves. After selling the company in 1997, Cal-Waste went from 180 employees to just Dave and a few of his best employees and he then slowly brought people back from the old organization, acquired more contracts and developed the company into what Cal-Waste Recovery Systems is now.

As a niche player in the residential market, Cal-Waste provides service to multiple cities as well as several different public utilities and different public utility districts including Rancho Murrieta, Woodbridge Sanitary District and Calaveras County. They also have commercial permits in Stockton, Sacramento, Elk Grove, Lodi and all of the surrounding areas into the foothills. This new growth has balanced Cal-Waste between being in a closed franchise market and being out in the open market where you are competing day-to-day for commercial services and to some degree, residential services. “I think that alone creates an awareness that not only keeps you sharp on the franchise side, but it also really keeps you in tune with your competitors and puts you out there really interacting with your customers every day. I think that helps balance things because you have to work for every dollar you earn. In a franchise, you have to work really hard to keep it—they are both different strategies,” says Dave.

With 116 full-time employees and 50 temporarily contracted employees, Cal-Waste is currently about 50/50 with regards to residential and commercial with a little heavier focus on the commercial side. Not only do they run an MRF and transfer station, but the company also has 65 trucks on the road at any given time with a few of those being hybrid split body trucks. The company services tens of thousands of residential customers and thousands of commercial customers in Calaveras, San Joaquin, Sacramento and Stanislaus Counties, Stockton, Sacramento, Merced and Calaveras County to the Delta, with exclusive contracts in the City of Galt, Rancho Murieta, the community of Woodbridge, Calaveras and Alpine Counties and Angels Camp—a majority of the northern part of the valley.

 

Keeping on Top of Trends

When 2008 hit, Cal-Waste rolled some things back, including non-opting some trucks and taking them off the road by not renewing their registration until the economy began to come back. Finally, in 2011 and 2012, they began seeing some recovery. At the same time as this was going on, Cal-Waste was in the process of building their world headquarters, moving into what was essentially a shell with no offices or any plant. “Another company had built the facility on speculation and it had sat for eight years because of the economic depression,” says Dave. “It was a great opportunity for us to buy the real estate at the right price. The timing was right in the area for another processor as material had come in from various programs that cities and counties were doing.” Cal-Waste was able to adjust well because the company was in a growth mode while others were in a down market and they were able to hire some good people. Although Cal-Waste did lose some of their customers, they ended up growing through organic methods and some acquisition within Calaveras County.

Cal-Waste is mostly a diesel fleet, however, they recently acquired some hybrid diesel trucks that run off clean diesel and a combination of hydraulic power. The hydraulic hybrid reduces fuel consumption by 40 to 50 percent The company acquired their first one in 2016 and now has three trucks on the job. Cal-Waste opted for this solution rather than CNG because of the diverse area that they are in. “We need the power up in the mountains and the CNG trucks aren’t an option,” says Rudy Vaccarezza. “We need to be versatile and pivot and move equipment, so we’ve stayed away from CNG, plus there is not a fueling station in our direct area. You really need about 25 trucks to support a CNG station and we are really spread out. We started with transitioning to hybrid hydraulic trucks and that is the road we are going to keep going down.”

Running Clean

Cal-Waste currently runs an MRF that handles about 200 tons of recyclables per day and transfers close to 150 tons of trash. With two shifts running at 18 hours per day, there is about 14 to 18 hours of uptime on the machine in order to get the cleanest product possible.  In order to do so, the MRF has a combination of manual and mechanical sorting. “We have a state-of-the-art MRF but we don’t use optics because we really feel that manual sorting has allowed us to control the cleanliness of our product,” says Rudy.

Part of keeping the material as clean as possible includes putting the right people on the pre-sort who know what to grab, using a metering drum, mixed paper screens, polishing screens, a glass breaker, a cyclone that pulls paper, dirt and debris out of the glass, and a magnet to get any batteries out of the glass. Pre-sorters also clean the screens at the end of the day so whatever they do not catch, they take care of it. This gives them incentive to use the pause button and take the extra time to grab any material they see go through. “After shutting the plant down four to six times per day, it takes a toll, so we came up with a pause button for the belt that is being worked on; it stops and you deal with the issue. It goes back on after 15 seconds. That was a good addition for us. We’re all about keeping things clean around here—the less clutter, the more efficient it runs and you can spot things before they break,” says Rudy.

Dave agrees, “We always want to be on the top of the list in terms of quality of the material that we ship out of here so that we are not put in a predicament where we, ultimately, have to take the material to a landfill or try to re-process it, which is almost impossible. You have to really look to keeping your quality up, keep processing costs down and get the best possible price you can.” He goes on to explain that as a country we either need to re-open more domestic mills or develop some relationships with mills in Vietnam, India or anywhere on the pacific rim, and the same goes for the Atlantic side. “It will severely impact the recycling industry if China decides that’s the one commodity they are going to shut off. Other than the small amount that we would take into an industrial mill, it would be a huge dilemma. I don’t know if anyone is prepared to take that on. I grew up on the recycling side. Processing and baling cardboard always had to be done right and clean and if it wasn’t, you had to redo it and that discipline has kept us in the competitive mode when we brokerage a deal.”

Focusing mainly on co-mingled residential recyclables and industrial recycling, Cal-Waste tries to do as much recovery as possible in order to get their residual rates down through public education, sorting methods, etc. In fact, the company works with many of the local wineries handling film, super sack bags, pallet wood, etc. In addition, Cal-Waste does not just collect their own material, they also process for other haulers who may not have an MRF, including El Dorado County, the city of Folsom, Turlock and Amador County and others. Cal-Waste also has two transfer stations in their mountain division located in the Sierras and Foothills that handle 100 tons per day. Although they are relatively new contracts, there are plans to build a bigger facility in the fall when things are well under way. The transfer station in Arnold already was in existence and the one in Double Springs just opened in August. Double Springs is the larger of the two and will eventually be a 200-ton per day facility. There will be a lot of recovery that will take place in that sector because the landfill cell is reaching its maximum point and that region is trying to stretch the space as far as they possibly can.

Efficient Operations

Cal-Waste prides itself on their safety programs and taking care of its employees through training and education as well as keeping the wave of communication open for everyone.  Within the last year, the company has revamped their safety program and now they have a team program where they cut the company up into four to six teams and the team works for a certain number of days without incident. There is also an individual safety program and safety bonuses for employees. Cal-Waste has a safety committee made up of multiple employees spread out around the company (to give different views)—an MRF supervisor, a driver, a mechanic, an HR person, a customer service rep—who put together the program, overseeing the whole aspect of safety coordination. Safety meetings are held with everyone that works inside or outside the office. All Cal-Waste team members attend the company’s mandatory morning stretch—everyone stands up, stretches and gets ready for the day.

“The morning stretch opens up the wave of communication between everyone—the drivers, the different supervisors and creates a team atmosphere where there are open discussions about internal problems, customer service, etc. We really preach safety and health as well as strive to create that family team-building environment that puts everyone on the same page,” says Casey. We want to continue to create that safe environment for everyone.”

Training also ties back into safety. Cal-Waste really trains their drivers on the safety aspect of doing maintenance and what can happen if you do not. They are huge on preventative maintenance and servicing; the staff even inspects trucks sitting in the yard for the day and rotates out spare trucks. When Cal-Waste has new hires, they go through rigorous training programs as well, including a three-month probationary period for drivers. Management tries to start people from the bottom and work them up to where they want them. Rudy stresses that one of their challenges is hiring experienced people, especially drivers and mechanics because a waste industry mechanic is pretty specialized since there are so many different aspects—electrical, hydraulic, motorwork, etc. As a result, they resource the training themselves. “We have a mechanic, whose job it is to help the young guys. He puts on a couple training sessions per month for our mechanics, whether it is the new hybrid engines, etc. We also do an apprenticeship program here so if we have a person who wants to come work for us but doesn’t have a driver’s license, we put them in our program where they agree to sign on and come work for us for a few months. We’ll pay for their truck driving school and they can do some of their training with us in-truck. When you find good people and you find the right ones, you really have to promote their growth and that is what Dave is great at doing. I have guys who started on the wash rack who are now driver supervisors. We want them to see every aspect of the business so we do a lot of cross training—our roll-off drivers can jump in the front-loader; our residential drivers can get in a roll-off; our forklift drivers are our loader drivers, etc. You never know when one of those pieces is going to be needed.”

The Importance of Education and Outreach

About four years ago, Cal-Waste made the decision to bring a recycling education program to Galt for five schools in the area, focusing on the 2nd and 4th grade classrooms. Leesa Klotz, Education Coordinator at Cal-Waste along with John Durrand, Service Learning Director, Judy Bullard, Director of Curriculum for Galt (now retired), MariaElena Sperisen, substitute teacher in Galt, and Linda Smith, retired science teacher, were very instrumental in developing a curriculum that was geared around the common core standards. The program was taken to the school district and the superintendent where it was looked over, approved and from there it has traveled to different schools. The company provides the curriculum, all of the materials and all of the teachers. It is a three-session class and at the end, the students take a field trip to Cal-Waste’s headquarters. The program has just branched out to all the 11 schools in Calaveras County and Woodbridge Elementary and in September, Cal-Waste began doing an organics program in 14 schools in Lodi. “We don’t just go into the classroom, we also go in assembly-style and teach the kids how to recycle organic waste after lunch, etc. Then, when the children come here, they bring their families, parents and grandparents. Many people want us to come to their schools or they come here for a home school tour. In the last three years, there have been thousands of people through here, including all of the schools—2nd and 4th grade classrooms, teachers, parents and any staff,” says MaryBeth Ospital, Community Outreach Coordinator.

A normal tour starts at the front of the Cal-Waste headquarters with a busload of kids. First they learn about the scale, then they look at the trucks, go through the shop and quietly walk through the offices where a guide tells them what goes on and all of the jobs that are provided. Then the kids are taken up to the second floor where there is a big observation room and education center. They play games, recap on what they learned during their three sessions in the classroom, have a discussion about buying habits, over-packaging and what it means, packing a re-usable lunch, etc., they watch a video and then view the recycling facility from the observation deck. “Both kids and adults mob the window to see everything from up there. It is a great experience for all,” says MaryBeth.

With regards to community outreach, Cal-Waste does provide in-kind trash and recycling service to an event or organization at no charge, including The Lodi Grape Festival, Galt Eggstravaganza, Lumberjack Days in West Point, The Galt 4th of July parade, etc. They also attend Irish Days in Murphys where they have a float in the parade, Pink in the Night (Breast Cancer Awareness month) and sponsor the Calaveras County Fair. “We bounce around and try to get in front of as many people as we can.  The more they hear your name and get the right information, the better it is going to be for us in the long run and for a community as a whole,” says Rudy.

“We want to participate in the community and be part of it. One of the biggest things we done on the diverse side of the business was there was the Butte fire in Calaveras County in 2015 that burned 70,000 acres and 9,000 structures in 2 ½ months. It was right in the middle of our area so we got out there and supported the fire camps of 5,000 guys,” says Dave. “We provided the solid waste services and anything else they needed. After the fire, recovery was started and here in California, the state has a demolition removal program that Cal-Recycle puts on after these disasters. We volunteered when the state came to town and ended up doing the entire recovery project in terms of the trekking and the disposal. It generated about 500 jobs in that community for about five months and we hauled 243,000 tons of hazardous waste to a facility down in Stockton. We had a lot of sub-haulers and we just coordinated the whole event. Getting involved in these kinds of things is good because you step up when your community needs you.”

Cal-Waste was even a participant in an episode of MythBusters in 2015. The episode focused on the myth that if a terrorist threw a bomb in the back of a trash truck, which way would the energy go if someone was standing in the back and would they be killed? The show’s producers contacted Cal-Waste to find out if they would be willing to donate a garbage truck for use, which Dave agreed to, using one of the old trucks they had gained through an acquisition. C4 was put in the back of the truck with Styrofoam people hanging off the back. Of course, when the truck blew up, it disintegrated them. Says Dave, “It took place in a mine quarry in Calaveras that was 600 feet deep and 10 football fields wide. We were right on the edge of this quarry in a van with the cameras focused on the tiny truck below. We were 600 feet up and 300 feet back and shrapnel still went over the van that we were sitting in. There was nothing left of that truck. It was very cool.”

Cal-Waste also offers a free downloadable app, powered by ReCollect, which can be downloaded through the Google Play Store and on ITunes. Customers can sign up with their service address (residential only) and they will receive, through text, e-mail or phone call, a reminder of their service days. Customers can set it up the night before and the app will let them know if it is a recycle or yard waste week and it also has a Waste Wizard feature in which you can find out if something is recyclable or not—type in the item and it will tell you. It also answers questions about when and where you can recycle something. “Our numbers grow daily,” says MaryBeth. “I can do education campaigns based on the information I get from this app. I can go into the back end of ReCollect and see what items are commonly searched and with that information I can begin to educate our customers. At the end of the month, they send you all of your stats, how many people signed up for calls, texts, e-mails, what they searched for, etc.” She also points out that Facebook is the best social media outlet for the company. On their Facebook page they do a lot of education, feel good stories, recognize birthdays, anniversaries, community outreach, what events they will be attending and implement new marketing strategies. Cal-Waste has a good following and it continues to grow.

A Changing Workforce

Cal-Waste is not without its challenges. Dave believes that from an operations standpoint, it is hard to find that younger workforce. DOT regulations are tightening down on what is considered a manageable diabetic and this begins to take out older employees. Because of this, if Cal-Waste is not training people, they are trying to mentor people into the jobs. “I think everywhere in the garbage industry, there is an aging workforce—in the field, drivers and operators. It’s been a challenge with the crew that we have. We look for new people every day and try to hire them when we can.”

To recruit, Cal-Waste does a lot of community outreach through trade organizations, local rotary clubs, etc. In addition, hiring is promoted through word of mouth and even Craigslist and Indeed. “We try to create a work environment that makes people want to come to work because when you find someone that is on time and can give you a day’s work for a day’s pay, you better take care of them because there aren’t very many,” says Dave.

MaryBeth, along with Leesa Klotz, has hosted several focus groups in the different areas where Cal-Waste provides service. Grabbing participants in age and demographics from different areas in Calaveras County, the group is asked questions, shown slides, and feedback is gathered on what they know or do not know. This helps the company decide where they need to educate more. “How does the community perceive what we are doing; how does the community feel about how we are doing? These focus groups have been really beneficial in order to get that information and then be able to do something about it. When we finish, they want us to come back and answer more questions we couldn’t answer at the time. People want to be educated; they want to know and understand why they are paying that price and what goes into that. This is a very mandated industry. We have to put certain programs into place, which then cost money and I don’t think the community understands that sometimes. Education is huge for us—from how to keep that material clean and what is recyclable to why you are paying this price.”

Cal-Waste is a member of the California Refuse Recycling Council and has been for three generations now. In addition to trade associations, they rely on lobbyists to keep them up to date on changing regulations. “California is a different animal, they want everything and they want it now,” laughs Dave. “We were Sustainable Business of the Year in Sacramento County in 2016. While California is closing plants, we are encouraging people to recycle more. We should be opening more facilities, not moving it offshore.”

Staying Strong Another 90 Years

In the future, Cal-Waste is going to continue to roll out and grow their pay to process recyclable program. “I think looking at the opportunities to process other materials is beneficial, especially in the Sacramento area because there are a lot of city contracts that are coming due,” says Dave. On the collection side, Cal-Waste is challenged with the concept of taking all food waste out of the landfill by 2020, which is a huge portion of what goes in there now, so they are currently putting together programs that look at where that plays out long term. “We are really back to taking it all the way down to the consumer level and figuring out how we can make it into something that costs less than going to the landfill. There are different people working on solutions and everyone seems to be going the anaerobic digestion (AD) route, but you have to have a good front end going into those plans, so we want to be able to plan to have our material as clean as possible when it goes out of the plant. We currently have been taking it to U.C. Davis and another AD company in Sacramento. These technologies are all new and whatever you decide to go with you have to have a back up plan just in case something shuts down.”

Dave is especially proud of the re-birth of the company over the last few decades. “It’s one thing to grow into something and then go to zero and start over. I had a chance to do it over again. It was a challenge and I’ve had fun. I still made mistakes the second time around, but what is probably the most rewarding now is that there are new faces at the table and that there is a future here for Cal-Waste.”

For more information, contact MaryBeth Ospital, Community Outreach Coordinator at (209) 912-9528 or Marybeth@cal-waste.com.