Green waste is big business

Jeff Hansen started his company, Hansen’s Tree Service, in O’Fallon, Mo., in 1985, and has never seen any sense in wasting the trees he has cut or the limbs he has pruned. Since 2000, when he bought his first tub grinder, he has attempted to correct that situation for his own company and many other accumulators of green waste. Now those limbs are worth money, because the end product is extremely marketable.

“It’s such a valuable resource, and becoming more valuable,” says Hansen. “When you recycle your own wood waste you can generate some income.”

Hansen says he is earning well over $1 million a year from the collection of green waste dumping fees, and that doesn’t include earnings from the sale of the mulch, compost, barbecue flavoring wood and firewood.

In the late 1990s he was paying another recycler to take his green waste, until he realized he was being taken for a ride on fees. So, he decided to recycle it himself. In 2000, he bought his first new Vermeer tub grinder and started grinding all of his own trees. Other companies began asking him to recycle theirs, too. He now has five collection and grinding sites in the St. Louis area and three in the southwest part of the state.

Top, Land is expensive, but Hansen’s has set up one of its composting operations in a quarry in the St. Louis area. Bottom, As many as 15 employees are involved in Hansen’s recycling yards, turning waste into compost, mulch and firewood.

His crews generate 1,000 to 1,500 cubic yards of waste per week (about 100 tons), and that doesn’t include the land clearing they do for development companies. Hansen has taken it to the next level by providing a place for other companies to dump their waste, too.

“The mulch is one area that has grown by leaps and bounds,” Hansen says. His company also does grinding for municipalities and big waste haulers. His core recycling business is in grinding organic waste and either mulching or composting the end result. He grinds one size for mulch, 1.5 by 2 inches, utilizing softwood for the most part. He also colorizes it in seven colors for landscaping purposes.

Compost is another step. Waste is taken to a finer grind, down to less than .25 inch. Small limbs are ground with grass, leaves and pallet chips, then mixed with horse manure. On his composting sites, he practices what is called “static pile” composting, in which huge piles of the organic blend are cooked. They can get up to 145 degrees before they are finistitle. The piles are only turned if they begin to stink, which is rare. The pallet chips benefit the final product because they help take the moisture out of grass clippings.

Hansen’s Tree Service takes tree waste from grinding to composting to hauling it in its own semi-trucks.

“We let the material cook for anywhere from 150 to 180 days,” Hansen says, and then the compost is screened through industrial screeners before being sold. Because the material is piled only on asphalt or rock floors, the final product is very clean. He has done some bagging of compost in the past, but isn’t doing much at the moment because prices are low; he sells most by the cubic yard to landscapers and other users.

Another recycling project is turning logs into firewood. He started that in 2000, also. At first he purchased small log splitters, but he recently bought a Multitek unit that splits three cords an hour. “It’s a service package,” Hansen says of the firewood program, because it tends to become self-perpetuating once he establishes a customer base. He sells at least 400 cords annually. He also has tried to sell lumber cuts, but felt he was being taken advantage of by the sawmills. At some point he may purchase a small sawmill to take care of the many big oaks he has been collecting.

Hansen’s owns 10 semi-trucks, part of the $5 million in equipment utilized in the company’s ever-growing recycling operations.

A final tree recycling project is in the black cherry, pecan and hickory wood he sells to restaurants for smoking. He has cut the number of restaurants he services back to five because of the cost of hauling. He splits 18-inch lengths of those species and uses a 1-ton or flatbed truck to deliver to the establishments’ storage racks, getting paid $300 per cord for that wood.

“We don’t have any disposal fees. We haven’t for years,” Hansen says. He likes the fact that other companies now pay the fees to him, as do the racetracks and riding stables that supply him with his horse manure. He also likes that his company no longer considers the results of its labors waste. Now it’s a resource.

It’s costly to set up. He estimates that he has about $5 million invested in recycling equipment. The last Vermeer TG 700G tub grinder he bought cost well over $500,000, and the Continental Biomass Industries’ tracked, horizontal grinder he bought ran to 1,100 hp and cost $600,000.

He also owns two Becker Underwood Colorbiotics colorizer systems that each add color to mulch at the rate of 200 cubic yards per hour. He has two Wildcat Manufacturing high-capacity screens that filter chunks out of his compost and mulch, at a cost of $175,000 each. He also has 10 semi-tractors and about 15 types of trailers, including seven Wilkins walking-bed trailers. He has loaders and dump trucks and end-dump trailers, and he sends a service truck with every grinder.

This so-called “waste” from many tree companies has become a resource.

Don’t forget the personnel required to run an operation of this size. Of his 100 employees, Hansen estimates that up to 15 are working on the recycling operations at any one time. That doesn’t count the 10 drivers for those semi-trucks, which, in the spring, can run 24 hours a day, or the four full-time mechanics his company employs. There is also an extra commitment to office staff, since he has three people who handle product sales and sctitleuling of shipments—the company sells its products mostly within the state of Missouri, but does send some to Illinois. It takes five employees just to monitor the composting sites, but many more when grinding is underway.

A lot of land is required for recycling, especially when long-term composting is involved. Hansen estimates that half an acre of land is needed just to handle the materials from one of his tree crews and turn it into fireplace logs and mulch. Land requirements grow when a company begins taking in other companies’ materials and composting it. He owns all of his facility sites except for two, which amounts to about 80 acres purchased.

Hansen has found an excellent source of land for his composting operations, though. A granite quarry in the St. Louis area has allowed him to set up a site in the bottom of the still-operating quarry, and it makes an excellent site because his materials are contained with no danger of compost or manure causing environmental degradation, and the natural rock bottom provides a good, clean floor. He is currently in the process of acquiring access to two more quarries in the southwest part of the state.

A new tub grinder costs half a million dollars, but when it is in use, it is part of a profitable recycling operation.

Although there is a lot of hassle in the recycling industry, Hansen points out that it has led to work in other areas. He hauls his grinders on contract to five or six
surrounding states to grind tree waste, and has gone as far as Wichita, Kan. Not only has he begun to recycle a lot of waste from municipalities and the trash hauling industry, he is embarking on the recycling of other types of waste. He is grinding wood from the demolition of buildings on an Army base, and is also grinding some asphalt roofing tiles to reuse in highway construction.

“I’ll probably purchase another grinder and dedicate it to asphalt,” he projects. In short, he is reaching into an area where there is a lot of potential for the future, because recycling in all realms has come to the forefront of the public consciousness.

“Oh yeah,” Hansen says when asked about profitability. “It’s not as pretty as they make it sound,” but there is money to be made here, if a company can keep its machines busy.

Hansen encourages other tree companies to get into the recycling business. He recommends getting started with a small operation grinding and selling the company’s own waste, or even stockpiling wood and having another recycler come in and grind it at first. Once the capital is accumulated for equipment investment, buy top-quality machinery, and plan to get very busy.