Talking Trash

Playmates to workmates; trash to treasure

by Will Lindner

clean_green0616Tim Mack (left) and Dave Koval, who have known each other since they were 5 growing up in Essex, decided late one night in 1999 to go into the trash business together. Clean Green Sanitation Inc. was born on March 28, 2000.

Dave Koval was minding his own business, working late one night in 1999 at Koval’s Coffee, a beloved coffee and doughnut franchise his family operated for 19 years in Williston and Hinesburg, when the door opened and in walked Tim Mack.

“It was 1 o’clock in the morning and he was making doughnuts at the Taft Corners store,” Mack recalls. “I said, ‘You wanna go into the trash business?’”

It was kind of a zany idea, but that was nothing new between these two friends who had grown up on Tanglewood Drive in Essex, played on many of the same sports teams and in the school band, and joined the Cub Scouts together. “I’ve known him since I was 5,” says Koval.

Thinking back, Mack can’t say exactly why he thought there would be a lucrative opening when there were already several well-established refuse services in the Chittenden County area. But he had become a landlord with about 20 rental properties (Mack and Koval are now both 52, so that night at the doughnut shop they were in their mid-30s), and it struck him, he recalls, “that I had a lot of garbage to deal with.”

Whatever the reason, Mack and Koval took the leap. Calling themselves “garbologists,” they bought a custom-made 2000 Mitsubishi “box” truck that they later realized was ill-equipped for hauling trash and recyclables, and founded Clean Green Sanitation on March 28, 2000.

“We had zero customers,” Koval recalls with a wan smile.

“But we had uniforms!” Mack chimes in.

“For about a week!” Koval retorts.

What they had in spades, and still have, is enthusiasm. “Our mission,” Mack says, referring more to their shared ethos than to the formal corporate statements now in vogue, “was to have fun and make money.”

Both men came from entrepreneurial families, which had instilled in them an actual enthusiasm for hard, productive work. Koval’s father had left a steady job at General Electric to purchase a store from The Whole Donut chain and, with his wife and children, turned it into Koval’s Coffee. Mack’s parents owned and operated McEwing Fuel Oils, which was founded by his maternal grandparents in 1947.

“We all worked hard,” says Mack, speaking for multiple generations of both families.

“I think that’s why we’re still in business,” Koval asserts. Indeed, when the pair launched Clean Green Sanitation there were, as they recall, about a dozen trash haulers in the area, now about half that number.

Working hard, for Mack and Koval, doesn’t mean poring over accounts in their tiny office upstairs over the former Lincoln Inn in Essex Junction; it means being out in their trucks every day, manhandling what the industry now calls “solid waste.”

The Mitsubishi is a thing of the past, and their fleet has grown to nine vehicles, configured to handle the diverse elements of the 21st-century waste stream. Koval’s 27-year-old son Andrew is the third driver — “He’s very much the backbone of our business,” says Mack — and a fourth operator, Trevor Berthiaume, works half time.

The final member of the staff is Alie Carvalho, hired six months ago to replace Mack’s wife, Stephanie, in the office when Stephanie left to run her own business, Account Mobility.

“Alie’s great,” Mack says enthusiastically, “an extremely good communicator. We’re a small but good team.”

Clean Green has updated: e-billing, an extremely informative website, each driver equipped with a tablet and an iPhone. Yet while much of the industry has moved to fully automated trucks, these guys get out of their seats and physically manage their customers’ refuse. That makes for a strenuous work day, but it’s just the beginning. When the friends set out to haul municipal waste 16 years ago they couldn’t have foreseen the changes that lay ahead for the industry.

Those changes, embodied in Act 148 and Act 175 of Vermont law, make this one of the most ambitious states in the country in terms of minimizing the solid waste that’s actually sent to the landfill and maximizing what’s culled for recycling and reuse. And that campaign, with the additional costs and responsibilities it creates for the state’s trash companies, hasn’t reached its peak.

Act 148, the Universal Recycling & Composting Law, was passed in 2012. On a nearly annual basis, it increases restrictions on the materials Vermonters can legally throw away, creating challenges for trash haulers and waste-management districts to enable residents and businesses to comply. This year a “clean wood ban” went into effect, which forbids landfilling wood that has never been painted, stained, treated, or glued.

Act 148 also implemented a gradual restriction on food scraps going to the landfill, starting two years ago with restaurants and large institutions and, by 2020, applying even to residents.

Act 175, passed in 2014, addresses construction and demolition materials (C&D). For projects of a certain size, it requires workers to separate discarded materials like drywall, metal, and asphalt shingles, along with clean wood and plywood, for reuse or recycling.

Mack explains that in Chittenden County, where Clean Green Sanitation operates (serving customers in every town except Milton and Charlotte), the Chittenden Solid Waste District oversees and helps provide mechanisms for the implementation of these laws. Mechanisms that add new costs and complexities for the haulers, leading Clean Green to join in launching the Vermont Hauling Group.

In 2015, Mack estimates, the company hauled some 4 million pounds of municipal solid waste. “Maybe a million pounds of it was construction waste,” he says, including recyclable materials, tires, and about 150,000 pounds of scrap metal, which is now forbidden from the landfill in Coventry.

Clean Green rents out 10-, 15-, and 20-cubic-yard “rollout” containers for C&D projects, and seeks to match its containers to the stages of a building or demolition project so workers can dispose of materials separately. Furthermore, the company happily pays to use a sorting and recycling center in Colchester provided by Myers Container Service. These steps reduce the complexities the drivers face when handling C&D refuse, but, Mack says, “I make a decision with each load: whether it’s going to get sorted at Myers or taken to Coventry.”

Ethical, legal, and economic factors influence those decisions. “Our mission is to recycle as much as possible,” he says. And gleaning recyclables from the rest of the waste ensures that his fee at the landfill is well spent.

Koval and Mack commend Vermont’s environmental commitment. “But doing the right thing,” Koval notes, “is not easy. And it’s not cheap.”

Then there’s the challenge of surviving in an industry that’s dominated by larger, better-resourced companies. What works for them, they say, is being local guys with strong ties to their community, and providing the most personal service they can. For weekly service, 52 weeks a year, and separate trips for the trash and recycling trucks, Koval says, “We have 104 opportunities a year to see you at your home.”

Kerry Aliesky also grew up in that Essex neighborhood and has known Mack and Koval for years. She has also observed them as a part-time fill-in at the office for Stephanie Mack.

“I think the level of customer service they offer is unparalleled,” she says. When events occur that alter the usual trash-collection routine — snowstorms, for example, or weddings that generate unusual amounts of trash for their customers — “they’re incredibly responsive.”

Longtime customer Steve Offenhartz, who owns 26 rental properties in Chittenden County, recalls one demonstration of Clean Green’s “personal service” that strongly impressed him.

“I was involved with a renovation project and needed one of the roll-off containers emptied so I could reuse it,” he says. “I reached out to Tim, as I usually do, and he texted back that he was on vacation but would try to get it taken care of.”

A couple of days elapsed before Dave Koval became aware of the situation. “He called and said, ‘We feel awful that we didn’t take care of you,’” says Offenhartz. “He said, ‘I can’t get right to it, so I’ll call one of my competitors and get you a new dumpster so you can be back up and running.’

“That,” says Offenhartz, “was an indication of their commitment to their customers, and to their business in the big picture.”

Even after 16 years and with bigger families now — Mack and Koval, whose wife, Cori, is a hairstylist, are both fathers of four — the “fun” part of their informal mission statement persists. They are skiers and snowboarders, and have taken numerous trips to the famous slopes out west and in Canada. In the past, they sponsored customer-appreciation days covering people’s lift tickets at Vermont resorts.

They have also sponsored events benefiting Type 1 diabetes and Camp Ta-Kum-Ta. Mack, particularly, is a blues fan, and the company once hosted customers for the occasional Clean Green Blues Night with live bands at the former Lincoln Inn.

The next day, though, it’s back in the truck for a long day of hauling, sorting, and delivering. At least they now have a good fleet of trucks to choose from. •