Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lonnie Poole, March 22, 1999. Interview I-0085. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Environmental concerns spur business growth

Poole continues to evaluate the effects of environmentalism on his waste management business in this excerpt. Here, he gives particular attention to the recycling movement, which he recalls gained momentum in the late 1980s and 1990s. Poole vents some of his frustration with what he seems to believe are fickle environmental policies driven by the whims of the public.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lonnie Poole, March 22, 1999. Interview I-0085. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JM: When was the first time that Waste Industries started to recycle some part of the waste stream? Do you know what year that would've been? LP: '70-uh, we did a short time in '74, '75 and we lost our shirt. We were baling cardboard. Seventy-four, '75--we bought a baler and put it in a building over here on Wake Forest Road . We went around to the grocery stores and put in a system whereby they could segregate the meat and the lettuce leaves and all that stuff and put it into giant plastic bags. Then when we would get those containers, we would dump them out. We would take those giant plastic bags, and we would put them back into a garbage can and all the cardboard would be left clean and nice. We'd bale it up and sell it. Well, it was a great idea, but several people had the same idea bout the same time. The end result was the price of cardboard went to zippo, below twenty dollars a ton. So we were trying to bale--this is a lot of candy for a nickel to bale a ton of cardboard boxes for twenty bucks. So it was not profitable. So we sold the baler and put in a garage in that same building. We didn't really get back into the recycling big until we had the mandates and that was some time in the, momentum really started to pick up in the late '80s, early '90s. JM: What was the character of those mandates? LP: What was it? JM: What was the character of those mandates? LP: Well, the Federal government said that we needed to recycle ten percent of the waste, and that was a Federal thing. It had to be, the part of the legislation said that a state would have a solid waste plan. Part of that solid waste plan would be a ramping up of the amount of either recycle, reused or--what was it--recycle, reuse-- JM: Reduce. LP: Yeah, or reduce, but primarily recycle. They wanted it ramped up. Let the state start at ten and go up to fifteen, twenty, twenty-five. The state had to put in a promotional mechanism to achieve that and convince the people that that was a worthwhile goal. That goes on until this day. It was initiated basically at the Federal level as a part of the RRCA Act of '76, which later became a part of the state solid waste plans, which the state actually spent money on and promoted. Then cities and counties embraced that. Then they required that we embrace that. The end result was that we achieved in this state around twenty, twenty-five percent recycling now. JM: What's your sense of how far along in their maturity are all of these attendant industries related to the reprocessing of recovered materials from the solid waste stream? LP: I think they're in their infancy. JM: Still quite in their infancy. LP: Yeah it's so crude. The markets are chaotic in it right now. I can look at it through our viewpoint. We wind up with either too much or too little all of the time. We've got too much cardboard; we've got too little cardboard. The way the thing works, we can't send a notice to people and say, 'Well you know we want all of your cardboard this week.' and then say next week, 'We don't want any.' You have to do it all of the time, and then that creates gluts. Then the gluts drive the price down. Then it rambles all over the place. We are also impacted by other things. When the pine beetle attacks the trees in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, all of the sudden the best thing for the big timber companies to do is get the big trees out of the woods. We've got lots and lots of trees. Or then a hurricane comes through and knocks down worlds of trees. All of a sudden everybody's cutting trees and nobody wants cardboard, used boxes. That's the way they're making paper. Then they say, 'Hey let's, this is a great growth year. Let's leave the trees in the woods and let's use the old boxes and up goes the price.' Everybody and their brother gets in it so it just wanders all over. You have the Shah of Iran or the OPEC. This is a great one, OPEC can't agree. Should we be selling the oil at twenty-two a barrel or should it be twelve? Well, let me tell you, it makes a lot of difference when you're recycling plastic bottles. So plastic bottles all of a sudden go to a worthless kind of raw material when oil's at twelve. Twenty-four, twenty-five or at forty, price of those bottles goes way up. There needs to be a mechanism for selling futures contracts. That hasn't been done. JM: A decade, two decades, three maybe down the line do you think for that industry to begin to mature in a real substantial way? LP: Let me come at it from another perspective. We in the business and the big manufacturers have to go out there and they spend ten, fifteen, twenty million dollars on a plant to use recycled commodities and everybody says, 'Hey, I don't want to do this anymore.' So the public whim stops, or they know us to be up and down. Our primary core business is collecting garbage. But we do this and all of a sudden, they've got a ten, twenty million-dollar investment that's dependent on us and the public. So they too have their reasons for not investing too much and getting too far out front. So we could all benefit ourselves and I do believe that it would be recyclables would be viewed as a primary raw material inside of ten years, inside of ten years.