Jim Johnson, Waste News

Sean Bradley, owner of Raven Valley Refuse of Wasilla, Alaska, keeps costs lower at this trash hauling company by running smaller trucks.

While the Bald Eagle has been removed from the endangered list, one particular species remains firmly entrenched on that list in Alaska.The independent garbage company. With much of the private solid waste management industry now consolidated by Alaska Waste in the greater Anchorage area, there are few other players in and around the

market. And those who do remain say life as a small trash hauler is just as challenging as would be expected in these parts.Sean Bradley, owner of Raven Valley Refuse of Wasilla, says the reason he remains in the business is simple: he needs a paycheck.

“Well, I don’t have a lot of options. I’m just a poor guy trying to put food on the table,” he said.

Bradley started in the business about twelve years ago as a way to supplement his building maintenance work in Anchorage. But when that work dried up during the recession he found himself completely reliant on the trash trade.

His small business operates five trucks and covers a huge geographic area to service about 1,000 residential and 200 commercial customers.

His secret is running smaller, more fuel-efficient trucks on the remote routes.

“Out here, it’s really tough because of the massive geography, a lot of miles between stops and a lot of tough roads. It’s a rough business,” Bradley said over a breakfast of eggs and bacon at the Denali Family Restaurant in Wasilla one morning.

“It’s a tough business, not to mention we probably average 20 degrees colder than Anchorage. In the middle of winter, if it’s 10 below in Anchorage, it’s 30 below here. Trucks don’t like 30 below,” he said.

Finances at Raven Valley Refuse do not afford Bradley the luxury of indoor storage of his vehicles, so they are open to the elements all year long.

“I’ve had mornings where you have to heat your heater to get your heater to work so you can heat a truck to get it to start,” he said.

Raven Valley can’t really afford to turn down business, so that means the company often takes on unique customers, he said.

“We put on a lot of miles for the amount of customers,” he said. “We pick up the odd-ball ones. The guys joke, they call it ‘End of the Road Refuse.’ The guy at the end wants special service, he comes to us. I’ll put on 100 miles in a day and pick up 50 customers,” Bradley said. “That’s what makes it tough out here.”

Even with all the challenges, the owner sees a brighter future ahead for his company.

“I actually enjoy the business. I enjoy the equipment. For the most part, I enjoy it,” he said. “If I can get it to where I can have a little more money to work with, I’d really enjoy it. I’m just kind of getting to the point now where I can take a day off because I have a couple of other people,” he said. “It used to be that I was seven days a week all the time.”

Aside from Bradley, there are two other full-time and three part-time workers at Raven Valley.

“One of the things I think about every day; a lot of the business is tough, and putting up with government is even tougher. But I’ll take off in a truck in the mornings and be listening to the radio and they’ll be talking about a traffic report in Anchorage,” he said. “I’m out here driving around in the woods, looking at moose and looking at the mountains and go, ‘This isn’t all that bad.’“I just really like being back in the country,” he said.

For Bill Stearns, owner of Talkeetna Refuse, being a trash man is just one in a series of unique career choices.The former advertising agency owner, pilot, magazine publisher and topless bar owner has an entrepreneurial spirit that runs deep and has found a way to make his Talkeetna Refuse a profitable enterprise for nearly 20 years.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.“It’s tough for a variety of reasons, one is the weather. You face challenges that you don’t face in different communities,” Stearns said. “It’s not unusual to have a 20-degree-below day. And then on the short days, we have five-hour days, 8 o’clock in the morning we’re rolling out in the dark. It doesn’t get light until 11 o’clock. You start in the dark, you end up in the dark,” Stearns said.

Talkeetna Refuse has five trucks, two route trucks that collect trash, two more roll-off trucks and one transfer truck that hauls trash from the company’s transfer station to the nearest landfill in Palmer, some 65 miles away.

While Talkeetna Refuse has always been a profitable enterprise, a key to its success is another company owned by Stearns. D&S Road Services provides road maintenance and repair.The road work and trash collection operations complement one another, allowing Stearns to use employees and equipment from the road business as needed on the garbage side.It was back in 1995 that he decided to look into the trash business to augment his road business, which includes snow plowing.

“We started like any other business, one truck, one employee. Then about a year later, I ended up buying a second truck and introducing a roll-off business,” he remembered. “I started out with six containers.”

Talkeetna Refuse’s transfer station accepts drive-up business from area residents to augment the trash collected by its own vehicles.The company now has 100 to 120 residential customers and 40 to 45 commercial customers, and just like Raven Refuse there are plenty of miles put on the trucks to service those accounts.

Stearns estimates his service area runs 80 miles long along Parks Highway, the main thoroughfare in these parts, and 30 miles wide to pick up customers located along connector roads.

“Our pricing is not cheap. We’re probably the highest priced in Alaska when it comes to door-to-door service,” he said.In introducing trash collection to his part of Alaska, Stearns said the key has been to show people the value of the service despite the cost.

“I’d have to say that the challenges are equal in several directions. One is maintenance. Two is employee acquisition and retention. Three is the weather,” Stearns said.“Even such things as the employees — getting the employees to work — is a problem because they have vehicles that they have to start. They have to travel through snowy roads to get to work. And then there’s the accessing customers, driving in those conditions,” Stearns said.

And, he added, “There’s the other feature of we’re one hell of a way away from parts and supplies. Something happens, we have to be pretty much self-sufficient.”

Stearns, a lover of winter weather and the solitude that Alaska provides, also is a long way away from San Diego where he was partners in a topless bar business from 1979 to 1985. Cashing out of that business gave him enough money to move to Alaska.

After initially working in the fishing business, he settled into Talkeetna and saw an opportunity to provide snow plowing and wood for winter heating.

 From there it branched out to road maintenance and then trash collection.“I wanted to stay in a business that was not to cyclical, especially considering the economy. I opened the refuse business with that in mind, having a recession resistant business,” he said