Back in 1971, when William “Bill” Gaston founded Gaston’s Tree Service in Gainsville, Florida, getting rid of wood waste was no problem. “At that time, it was inexpensive to just go to the dump,” he recalls. “I think when I first got started it cost us $1 a load to dump.” However, that pricing structure soon changed to charging by the yard, and by 1976 he was paying about $15 to $16 per load. “As the tree service grew, we had to come up with a way to dispose of the material,” Gaston says.
His initial plan was to get a permit to install a pit burner and simply haul in the woody debris and burn it. When that permit was denied, he began to look for other alternatives. Other tree care companies were also searching for cost-effective methods for disposing debris. “Everybody was taking tree and yard debris and dumping it in the woods,” he says. Looking for a more aboveboard approach, Gaston leased 5 acres of land from a farmer he knew outside of town and piled his debris there on a temporary basis. “The original intent was that we would just burn our debris, then the plan switched to recycling it – maybe cut the wood for firewood,” he recounts.
When he started the permitting process for that undertaking, Gaston says he was approached by city and county officials who realized they faced the same challenge as tree care companies in getting rid of tree and landscape debris. “They said, ‘If you open, will you handle our debris?’ It wasn’t until then that I thought, ‘Well, maybe there’s a business here. Maybe we can take tree, yard and land clearing debris from other people.’ At first all I wanted to do was solve my own tree service disposal problem, but when other people heard about what we were doing, that’s when I realized everybody else had the same problem we did,” he explained.
By the mid-1980s, a 25-acre site behind the county transfer station in Gainsville was selected, and Wood Resource Recovery opened for business with an eye at serving the landscape materials and biomass markets. “As far as I know we were the first ones, certainly in the state of Florida and maybe in the country, to start recycling wood debris,” states Gaston. He says the innovative approach was purely out of necessity rather than part of some forward-thinking plan.
Being on the forefront of wood recycling, Gaston says he learned many lessons by trial and error. “The technology to grind and turn vegetation into a product didn’t really exist. There was some biomass going on, but they had always dealt with forestry operations,” he explains. “I never knew what biomass was; I never knew what fuelwood was.”
The operation started with a used whole-tree chipper. “It was electric and we brought three-phase electricity into the site and set up almost a homemade feed system that fed this big disc chipper,” he explains. “We would blow everything into the back of these chip vans and haul them to the biomass markets.” The only problem, says Gaston, was that it cost about $25 to deliver $16 worth of product. “We immediately went broke – it took only about 90 days!” he says with a laugh.
Some good came from the experience, though. During those first few months word got out and city and county waste haulers began sending their landscape debris pickups to the site. “That’s when we at least started breaking even,” says Gaston.
Even so, they struggled for many years to develop markets for the products. For a time, Wood Resource Recovery tried mulch and compost. “The intention still really wasn’t to be in the landscape supply business and make money, it was just a better way to get rid of the material,” he emphasizes.
One lesson Gaston learned early on was never to take in more material than he could get rid of. He says that’s a common problem for those looking to get into biomass. “What’s happening around the country is people are getting permits, these yards are opening up, they’re filling up with material, but they don’t have a place for it to go. Then they shut down and abandon the yard,” he explains. That leaves behind a massive and expensive cleanup for the landowner or government. As a result, the permitting process for tree debris recycling yards is getting tougher, and in fact some municipalities are requiring bonds to ensure that funds are available for cleanup in the event the operation folds, he notes.
Today, Wood Resource Recovery recycles about 600,000 tons of wood debris per year at 12 sites around the state of Florida, a number that’s expanding. “Most of the material comes from tree service companies, as well as lawn maintenance and land clearing companies,” Gaston notes. “We also have several municipality contracts to take their curbside [woody] waste. When we recycle it and use it to generate electricity, they get recycling credits, so there’s incentive to use the material as renewable energy rather than dumping it in the landfill.”
Currently, about 99 percent of the material the company receives is processed and sent to various biomass plants to generate electricity. The remaining 1 percent is the dirty material that results from the screening process, and that is sold as soil. On occasion, large orders for wood chips for road projects, etc., are filled, but Wood Resource Recovery no longer produces or markets mulch products for the landscape industry. Everything really is aimed at the biomass market, reiterates Gaston.
In fact, the company recently signed its largest single contract ever (some 350,000 to 400,000 tons per year) to supply material for the newly constructed Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, a local market that will help reduce the distance Wood Resource Recovery has to truck its product.
Gaston says that in Florida the market for biomass has been “pretty consistent” over the years. “The challenge has been that there’s a lot more material available than is needed, so the price is down,” he explains. “The biomass market isn’t good as a stand-alone business – we use it to get rid of material that otherwise would be landfilled or burned in the open or dumped illegally. So it’s a win-win. The community wins because it’s renewable energy, and the people who generate tree and land clearing debris now have a place for it to go, and while it may not be income producing, it can lower the cost of what they have been doing.”
The fees that Wood Resource Recovery charges those who send their material to its sites depend on where it came from and how clean it is. Typically tree care and lawn care companies are charged one price, with land clearing contracts charged more to cover the added costs of cleaning the material up. “Most of the tree debris comes in clean, but sometimes land clearing material requires a separate process where we run vibratory screens to separate any contaminatnts from the material,” Gaston explains. “We do have some land clearers who are very good and we’ll price them tree service prices. But the dirtier the wood is, the more we charge, and there is a point — with stumps and roots and dirt — where we won’t take it.”
One thing that should be noted: wood waste recycling is an equipment-intensive business, and the investment required is significant. “We’ve really used it all when it comes to equipment,” says Gaston. In the beginning, he subcontracted out the grinding to others. As his volume grew, he could justify the purchase of his own grinder. “We started out cheap, and we learned that the less expensive a grinder is, the lighter it is, and lighter grinders just come apart. Anything less than about 85,000 to 100,000 pounds just doesn’t last,” he states.
“Now we’re running Morbark 1600 tub grinders and we have five Morbark 6600 horizontal units. We also have a 5048 whole-tree chipper and a couple more grinders from Morbark that will be coming online soon,” says Gaston. The specs required by biomass plants in that area are generally a 3-inch-minus chip, and with the correct screen size that can be achieved in one pass with the equipment the company uses, he adds.
The support equipment needed to handle the material is all John Deere. “John Deere has been really helpful in expanding our operation,” he states. “We have a number of John Deere 240 excavators and 644 front-end loaders.” Some of those wheel loaders have high-lift, 10-yard buckets to load trucks.
Speaking of trucks, the company recently ordered 25 new Freightliners and chip vans to expand its fleet. “We now have about 20 trucks on the road, and by the time we’re complete we’ll have about 35 to 40 trucks running, everything from chip vans to walking floors to knuckle-boom trucks.”
The knuckle-boom trucks are used to collect debris generated by tree operations, anything from residential jobs to larger land clearing projects. “Some tree surgeons and land clearing companies may not have the hauling capabilities. They’ll do the work and call us and we’ll go pick the wood up and charge them a fee to haul it back to our facility to grind it up,” says Gaston.
In addition to its own sites, the company also manages the processing of wood debris for other collection yards. “The cost of grinding equipment and trucking equipment and support equipment is so expensive that it makes more sense for them,” he explains. “It’s their facility and they charge a tipping fee for people to go in and dump, and then we grind and dispose of the material for them and they pay us a fee to do it. It works out well for them and for us.”
In somewhat the same way, Wood Resource Recovery also provides remote grinding services in the aftermath of major storms. “We’ve taken in over 50,000 yards per day at 15 sites, and that’s what prepared us to manage large amounts of debris,” says Gaston of the decision to get into emergency service contracting. For example, the company has prepositioned contracts around the state of Florida and also sent teams to New York for two months last year in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. “During Hurricane Ike in Texas (2008), we had five separate sites with 12 different grinders running,” he adds.
The scale that Wood Resource Recovery has reached is far beyond what Gaston ever imagined when he was looking for a way to dispose of the material his own tree care company generated. For the last 10 years, Gaston’s Tree Service has been run by his son, Shawn, who continues to bring material to his father’s other business for recycling. Gaston says, “It’s just been a perfect fit.”