Both Deb Oakley and Jim Richter drag their trash to their Webster curbs in cavernous, 96-gallon rollcarts. Both chose Waste Management from a slew of local trash haulers. Both neighbors, who live eight houses away from each other, signed on for standard weekly pickup. Waste disposal Sydney values exceptional service, providing a wide range of services and products.
The only difference? The money they shell out to make sure their garbage gets carted away every week — Richter pays roughly $337 per year total, Oakley $480.
Garbage trucks emblazoned with one of many different logos crisscross the Rochester area every day on their way to a neighborhood or transfer station.
Cash is exchanged for this service that most can’t live without, but some residents see significant price differences from a neighbor a few miles away, or even a few houses away.
What’s behind the difference?
The Democrat and Chronicle found there is no government regulation over what private companies can charge for pickup in the Rochester area, and that individual prices can vary based on collection density, proximity of pickup locations to trash dropoff facilities, and negotiation processes between haulers and municipalities.
What goes into a trash bill
A constellation of garbage disposal companies service this area, including national hauler Waste Management, a smattering of regional companies such as Lilac Disposal and Boon and Sons, and municipalities who handle trash themselves as part of city or village taxes.
Private companies set prices based on costs of disposal, transportation, wages, fuel and insurance costs.
Four major landfills surround the Rochester area, and take nearly all the trash from Monroe County. Landfills cost money to operate, especially under strict environmental regulations from the Department of Environmental Conservation and other agencies to keep waste from contaminating the environment around it, said Nicole Fornof of Waste Management.
Haulers that don’t own landfills or transfer stations — or trash dropoff locations — have to pay to dispose waste picked up around the county, which is a major component of a customer’s price. Add to that the cost of trucks and maintenance — new trucks often cost over $200,000 apiece and get beaten up through regular use.
“Those rules are not getting easier,” said Steven Changaris of the National Waste and Recycling Association, which represents private haulers. In addition, many lands are trying to expand, which adds to the cost.
“We all consume the service because we all make waste,” he said. “And we all pay for that.”
Haulers typically have to pay a per-ton fee to dispose of waste in landfills or leave it at transfer stations, which are centralized drop-off locations that feed the landfills.
Fuel and environmental surcharges cover fluctuation in diesel prices and keeping all operations environmentally friendly, said Fornof. Fuel charges at Waste Management are tied to national diesel prices, and added on as a percentage of the customer’s bill. Not all companies break out this charge for customers.
The private companies’ actual prices are not regulated on state or federal levels, unless they are in a municipal agreement that could require they pay certain wages to haulers and drivers, said Bill Rabbia of the New York State Association for Solid Waste Management.
Another exception is private commercial waste hauling in New York City, where the city’s Business Integrity Commission sets maximum rates a hauler can charge per pound or cubic yard of commercial refuse.
There are around 15 private haulers in the area. Waste Management is the largest, and the company owns and operates High Acres Landfill in Perinton, as well as operating Monroe County’s landfill, Mill Seat, in Riga.
Most haulers don’t have a hand in running a landfill, so they are essentially trucking companies hired by customers to move and drop off trash, said David Boon of Boon and Sons.
Certain haulers have stomping grounds, like Boon and Sons in Chili, where they can recruit customers through word-of-mouth and getting involved in community events, he said.
The costs of recycling are often factored into customer’s bills, and with prices falling recently for recycled goods, some disposal companies may charge a separate recycling fee in coming years, said Rabbia.
The customer’s choice
If a municipality doesn’t cover waste pickup, residents call local haulers for quotes to get their trash off the curb.
Trash companies give quotes starting with a baseline charge, and then adding fuel or environmental charges, and other discounts or add-ons. Based on an unscientific Democrat and Chronicle survey, the average annual cost for subscription customers is about $335 a year.
“It’s much like a cable company,” said Fornof, in reference to the level of personalization in garbage pickup. “There’s not going to be the same level of service from one person to the next.”
A gap between customers’ prices, such as between Oakley and Richter in Webster, results from “competitive impact” caused by an open market, she said. Often this happens when other providers offer cheaper rates, and haulers match or change rates to stay competitive.
Customers have seen success in bargaining with local companies to get better prices, based on the survey. If confronted with a lesser area price, some companies will match that price or give a discount, said Richter, of Webster, who has had success with that strategy with Waste Management in the past.
“It’s to the point now where I may start shopping around again,” he said. He pays $58.20 quarterly for weekly pickup with one, 96-gallon bin, not including fuel charges, taxes and other fees.
“That seems like a lot of money for just throwing stuff out,” he said. But that’s nothing compared to Deb Oakley’s Waste Management bill, which is around $150 more expensive per year, even though she lives a few houses down from Richter.
Oakley’s most recent quarterly bill shows she’s paying a baseline quarterly fee of $88.20 for the same weekly pickup in a 96-gallon bin.
“I’m not usually aware of what other companies are charging,” she said. “But if someone was low enough, I’d consider (switching).”
Some residents feel it’s worth it to shell out for more extensive service. Take Bill Goldman of Pittsford, who pays more per quarter for Waste Management to pick up his garbage can from his garage instead of at the curb each week. He pays around $125 per quarter for pickup, all fees included.
“I’ve always questioned myself, but it’s worth it to me,” he said, who’s been with Waste Management for decades.
Others bailed on Waste Management because they saw prices rise about 30 percent over the past several years.