Tree care operators who run wood-waste recycling operations are glad to have the chance to make a positive impact on the environment, but most will admit that is not the reason they got into the business.
“We want to be good stewards of the earth, but if it didn’t work economically, we wouldn’t have stayed with it,” says Bill Gaston, who started Gaston Tree Debris Recycling in Gainesville, Florida, in the early 1980s. “And then, suddenly it became sexy. All of a sudden, everybody was talking about clean air and clean water.”
“I want to do my part where I can, where it makes sense, but I’m definitely not on a crusade,” says Chad Hansen, president of Hansen’s Tree, Lawn and Landscaping Inc., an accredited, 28-year TCIA member company based in O’Fallon, Missouri, and Hansen’s Tree Service and Environmental Resources, also based in O’Fallon. “To me, it’s a win-win scenario. We are in a business we can make a little bit of money at, and we can recycle and pull out something that used to just go in a hole and turn it into a usable product.”
The recycling of wood waste, a developing area of the green industry for decades, has become a big part of the tree business for some companies, many of which originally started it as a way to avoid government-mandated disposal regulations and dumping fees that were hurting the bottom line.
These days, wood is recycled as wood chips and mulch, resulting in biomass fuel that is burned to provide heat or energy and for other uses. Wood-recycling operations, like those owned by the business operators spoken with for this article, have grown over the last decades to include more markets for their wood waste and more sources of income for their businesses. They clear their own waste and charge fees for taking wood or other green waste from other tree companies, municipalities and individual homeowners.
“It was getting really expensive,” Hansen says. “My father was the one who came up with the idea that, not only can we save some money, but we also can create a beneficial use for this. That’s kind of what spurred us into the grinding and recycling industries.”
While they were driven by a business problem, they are happy with their contribution to reducing waste.
“Nothing goes to waste in our company,” says Mike Kachur, owner of Kachur Tree Service in Niles, Michigan. “One can say that just (one company) doesn’t make a difference, but you look at that across the country, that’s significant.”
Problem, solution and a new area of business
In 1972, Bill Gaston started Gaston’s Tree Service LLC, now a 23-year TCIA member company also based in Gainesvile, Fla., and run by son Shawn. In the early 1980s, he started the wood-waste operation after a government mandate stating that tree waste could no longer be stored in landfills.
“We were recycling before we knew recycling was a good thing,” says Gaston. “We just thought it made sense.”
Things were different when he first started, Gaston recalls, starting with the fact that, at that time, they recognized the problem but not necessarily the solution.
“We were the first permitted site in Florida, and the technology, well, nobody knew what to do with the stuff,” he says of the wood waste. “We were going to recycle it. We wanted to burn it, but when we went before the County Commission in Alachua County to get a permit to burn, they wouldn’t do it. (A county commissioner) said, ‘You need to recycle it.’ And I go, ‘Into what?’ The technology really wasn’t even around yet. So we started out really not knowing what we were doing.”
Originally, the 15-acre site outside of Gainesville was intended for the tree debris from his tree care business. “We figured by the time we filled it up, we’d know what to do with it,” Gaston says. “So we filled it up.”
The company got involved with Morbark, which became their grinding partner, providing Gaston with its first grinder.
“They brought it in, and we contracted a couple of grinding companies to come and grind,” Gaston says. “And we started hauling fuel wood to Georgia Pacific in Palatka (Florida). And that was the first time we actually were in the renewable-energy business, although we still did not know that’s what it was. We were sending our ground-up mulch to the Palatka plant. They ran a biomass power plant (in the 1980s).
“It wasn’t long after that that we started making landscape products, and we had a chipper and we were selling chips at first, and there’s a big demand for that,” says Gaston, who still runs the wood-waste business. “As the grinders improved, we started selling mulch, and there you go.
“Now our application is the landscape industry, the renewable-energy business and agricultural applications. There’s a demand for everything we can produce from the vegetation we take in. And the city and the county came to us and asked if we could take their vegetation, their curbside, and we said, ‘Sure.’ And the University of Florida came. We are still managing their vegetation.
“That was the beginning of it. And now we have about a dozen sites around the country, and we recycle about 600,000 or 700,000 tons a year,” says Gaston, whose company runs 16 Morbark grinders.
Doing good things for the environment
“I love conservation when it makes sense,” says Chad Hansen, whose company uses grinders from Vermeer. “I wouldn’t say I’m going to go out and hug every tree in the world, even though I do think keeping them alive is very important. And this, to me, makes sense.
“Why are we throwing this resource in a hole when we can make good, viable and eco-friendly products out of it that are beneficial not only to humans, but to the earth?” Hansen asks.
Hansen’s Tree, Lawn and Landscaping Inc. does residential and commercial tree work. Along with its Environmental Resources branch and other businesses it owns, Hansen’s has a little more than 100 employees covering multiple markets in Missouri, he says.
Busy tree companies create a lot of wood waste, which in Hansen’s case is recycled into mulch or compost or some sort of engineered soil. Remanufactured, it is sold back to landscape companies, wholesalers, retailers and bagging operations.
“It ends up in Walmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot – the big box stores,” Hansen says. “Something we’ve been kind of eyeballing lately has been waste-to-energy. I know there are other markets that do it pretty heavily. Ours does not, but that’s starting to become a thing again in our area. So we’re looking at potentially using wood waste for energy as well.”
Like Gaston, Hansen’s takes in waste from a lot of places and finds multiple uses.
“We have grinders that are either stationary at our yard or we have multiple mobile grinders that move around the state and grind up the material periodically throughout the year on each site,” Hansen explains. “Also, we’ll go out and do large clearing projects for subdivisions and stuff like that. We go and clear a 100-acre subdivision, then all that wood debris we put in walking-floor trailers. We bring it back to our shop or one of our other coloring facilities, and we’ll turn it into mulch products. Then we also open up our sites to the public, so the public can pay us a tipping fee to come dump their waste (wood and green waste) at our site as well.”
Hansen says that, while he makes money most years, he hasn’t gotten consistent with his margins. If he factors in the money he saves the tree business, it might tip the scales more. Complicating things, while his prices have gone up a little in the past decade, the cost of equipment has doubled in price, he says.
He has pondered whether he’d be better off concentrating on the tree business, but says he hasn’t come to a conclusion. “The recycling is fun,” Hansen notes. “I wouldn’t say I’ve got it completely figured out yet, but we’re trying.”
A new use
Recycling wood waste is an evolving process, and a big part of the evolution comes with innovations and improvements in equipment, such as slow-speed shredders.
Mike Kachur has been recycling waste wood since he bought his first tub grinder and started making chips and mulch about 25 years ago. His site recycles his own wood and that of homeowners and other local tree care companies. He’s getting a lot of stumps, he says, since Michigan landfills have stopped taking them. He recently purchased a Bandit Arjes Impaktor 250, a slow-speed shredder good for breaking down stumps and other matter. It has helped his company enter into a new and potentially valuable area of business.
Much of the company’s work is land clearing, and Kachur notes that when some of the existing houses are being demolished, contractors will ask, “Hey, do you want to take the house down, too?” Kachur purchased the Arjes Impaktor 250 to get rid of dense chunk woods – “things we don’t want to send through the grinder,” he says – and for jobs like the house debris.
Because they’ve been treated, painted or include chemical residue, scrap wood from homes is considered hazardous waste by recycling centers. It can’t be repurposed into another product, but after going through the slow-speed shredding process, Kachur has found a valuable use.
After being ground down and the bits of metal pulled away by a magnet, the material can be used as surface material to cover landfills at night. Environmental requirements call for a heavy surface of clay or soil to cover landfills at night, to blanket the trash, Kachur says.
Kachur’s company gets paid for hauling the debris, and grinding the wood knocks the volume down. The machine’s magnet pulls away the scrap metal, which is recycled elsewhere. And the ground waste wood goes to good use.
“When we ground this house the other day, a lot of wood material went through it. Some shingles, of course, the plaster, some plastic siding, but the machine chopped it up fine enough to where it met their specs to use it as a blanket material,” says Kachur, who notes that his company also tested a not-yet-available horizontal grinder last summer that was very impressive. “I thought it was kind of cool that, yes, it goes into the landfill, but it’s being used as a resource.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘How much difference does this make in the world?’” he asks rhetorically. “Well, if a lot of people are doing it, it’s everybody who’s making small differences, and that does add up to a big difference.”
Buying in? Not so fast
While the owners spoken with for this article are all happy recycling wood waste, they warn this is a business where success is hardly automatic. If it seems like an easy way to make use of land in the yard and open a new income stream, they advise that you think it through.
“It’s so darn expensive to get into the business,” Gaston says. “What’s happened with the industry now is that, if you don’t have the ability to scale it, it’s not economically viable.”
Hansen agrees that the entry cost is huge.
“It’s a massive cost to get into this game,” Hansen says. “To even start, you’re looking at at least a million bucks, really.
“The grinders are a million-plus now for the ones we’re playing with,” Hansen adds. “Then you need a wheel loader or an excavator. So there’s another quarter mill. Then you need semis and trailers. There’s another quarter mill, and you get to the point where you’ve got four, five or six of the grinders and a couple-dozen tractor semis. The expenses just go up and up and up.”
One of the big issues, particularly since the pandemic and supply-chain shortages, is repairs and downtime.
“If you have a single grinder to make mulch, it’s going to be down 30% of the time. And they’re so expensive now. Who can afford a $1.2 million grinder and have it not run 30% of the time?” Gaston says.
“To be a dependable contract grinder or to be a dependable supplier, you’ve got to have at least two or possibly three grinders, so if one goes down, you can trade it out. Now you’re looking at spending $2 or $3 million to be a comparable supplier.”
It was tough before COVID, Gaston says, but became worse with the supply-
chain issues that began during the pandemic.
“We waited seven months to get a radiator for a 1600 tub grinder. So that’s a million, almost a $1.5 million machine today, and we can’t get a radiator for seven months. Most companies, that would’ve been the end of their operation,” Gaston says.
“At one point, we had five grinders sitting waiting on parts when normally, at a slow time, you could get them in a couple or three weeks,” Gaston adds. He notes that the delay in the manufacture and delivery of parts was not exclusive to one manufacturer, but was an issue across the board and in many industries and persists in some areas still today.
But with a business mission that makes money and contributes positively to a societal need, he says they aren’t getting out of wood-waste recycling.
“It’s a great field, and it’s still fun,” Gaston says. “I’ll be 73 years young in November, and I’m going to keep doing this until I don’t have any fun.”
David Rattigan is a former correspondent for The Boston Globe and People magazine who has written for the Tree Care Industry Association for 19 years. He’s received 15 awards for journalism and is currently an adjunct communications professor in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in seven national magazines including Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, The Robb Report, The Christian Science Monitor and Lawyers’ Weekly USA.