Risky Business

Features - Cover Profile

How Clean Harbors is helping customers throughout North America meet their hazardous waste disposal needs.

October 9, 2018

Clean Harbors COO Eric Gerstenberg
Photo by Alex Jones Photography

Waste collection and processing comes with its share of dangers. For those in the hazardous waste business, the stakes are even higher.

Despite its challenges, Clean Harbors, Norwell, Massachusetts, has made hazardous waste collection and processing the focal point of its operations for nearly four decades.

Founded by current CEO Alan McKim in 1980, Clean Harbors began as a four-person tank cleaning business. Today, Clean Harbors is a publicly traded company that is North America’s largest hazardous waste disposal company; largest collector, recycler and re-refiner of used oil; and a leading provider of comprehensive environmental, energy and industrial services.

The company currently owns and operates more than 100 waste management facilities in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico that offer a range of disposal options including incineration; wastewater treatment; and landfill, recycling and specialty disposal. The company’s facilities include nine incinerators; 11 landfill sites; 18 treatment, storage and disposal facilities (TSDFs); two solvent recycling facilities; nine wastewater treatment operations; nine oil accumulation centers; and six re-refineries. The company also has more than 400 waste disposal and solvent recycling facilities and service locations stretched throughout North America.

The company, which currently employs more than 14,000, brought in more than $1.5 billion in revenue from its combined waste management services last year.

Company growth

According to Clean Harbors COO Eric Gerstenberg, the company’s transition from small tank cleaning business to the largest hazardous waste disposal company on the continent was born out of McKim’s desire to expand the company’s profile and scope of operations.

“Starting out as a tank cleaning service company, Alan McKim had the foresight to vertically integrate so we could handle the transportation and disposal of the material generated from our cleaning work,” Gerstenberg says. “Likewise, he expanded our capabilities to handle hazardous materials, and we became a leading responder to environmental emergencies. His vision helped define the industry.”

Through its evolution, Gerstenberg says that Clean Harbors has carved out a niche specializing in the type of waste that can’t be disposed of through conventional channels.

The waste the company handles includes solid, sludge, liquid and gas substances that are classified as hazardous because of their corrosive, ignitable, infectious, reactive or toxic properties, and other substances that are subject to federal, state and regional environmental regulation.

“We provide final treatment and disposal services designed to manage waste which cannot be otherwise economically recycled or reused,” Gerstenberg says. “We also handle nonhazardous waste that cannot go to a municipal solid waste landfill or a municipal wastewater treatment [facility].”

The company operates recycling systems for the reclamation and reuse of certain wastes, specifically solvent-based waste generated by industrial cleaning operations, metal finishing and other manufacturing sectors. The company’s resource recovery process involves removing contaminants from the original material to restore its fitness for its intended purpose and reduce the volume of waste requiring disposal.

Thanks to the comprehensive nature of its services, the company’s customer base is expansive. This base, which includes the majority of Fortune 500 companies according to Gerstenberg, is composed of a number of different industry subsectors, including the chemical, energy and manufacturing industries, as well as numerous government agencies. Through Clean Harbors’ Safety-Kleen subsidiary, the company also serves the automotive, metalworking, and manufacturing markets.

Because of the potential complications of dealing with this diverse waste stream, Gerstenberg says the company is fastidious in understanding every project it tackles.

“All material must be profiled and approved before it can be picked up, transported, disposed of, treated or recycled,” Gerstenberg says. “Clean Harbors employs a comprehensive approval process that takes into consideration all facets of the waste material’s chemical makeup, consistency and volume, as well as U.S. Department of Transportation requirements and U.S. EPA regulations. We also determine the best disposal, treatment or recycling method and which Clean Harbors facility is best suited to handle the material.”

In addition to its commercial initiatives, Clean Harbors also facilitates thousands of household hazardous waste (HHW) and pesticide collection programs throughout North America.

Through these programs, Clean Harbors is able to collect paints, solvents, batteries, fluorescent lamps, pesticides, cleaners and other hazardous materials during one-day, multi-day and mobile events.

According to Gerstenberg, these events allow Clean Harbors to take hazardous materials out of the waste stream to potentially be reused by those in need.

“We are committed to recycling and reclaiming waste using a variety of methods,” Gerstenberg says. “[Through these collection programs, we] identify opportunities for waste reduction and provide options that previously may have been unavailable. For example, our material reuse program collects new or slightly used unwanted products that meet stringent criteria and makes them available for reuse by the community.”

Just last year, Gerstenberg says Clean Harbors was able to reclaim 45 million gallons of paint throughout North America through its HHW collection program.

Courtesy of Clean Harbors

Ensuring safety

It’s no surprise that safety is a cornerstone of Clean Harbors’ philosophy given the nature of its operations. To help ensure employees are safe on the job, the company stresses initial and ongoing training for its staff.

“Field employees begin with the baseline safety and OSHA 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) training,” Gerstenberg says. “Additional job-specific training (e.g., confined space entry, air monitoring, decontamination, etc.) is completed based on the tasks the employee will be performing.”

Gerstenberg says the process of compliance is a perpetual one, which is why Clean Harbors is continually working on establishing systematic processes to help workers stay safe on the job.

“Clean Harbors is a compliance-driven business. Because we handle hazardous waste, we are more impacted by environmental regulations and transportation regulations. Not only are we impacted by federal regulations, but many states have their own regulations. We maintain more than 500 permits of varying types, so we are closely in touch with [changes in policy],” Gerstenberg says.

The emphasis on preparedness has helped Clean Harbors distinguish itself as a go-to resource for environmental emergencies. From spill cleanup to hurricane, earthquake and storm response, the company has a network of emergency teams throughout North America trained to handle a range of sudden catastrophes quickly and safely.

“As a company, safety is our No. 1 priority and key to responding to environmental emergencies,” Gerstenberg says. “We begin by performing a hazard assessment that considers all factors, including the chemistry of the material to be cleaned up, how to safely perform the cleanup, what equipment and which personnel is needed, and what process will result in the affected area being returned to its original state before the environmental impact. We are also very mindful of the responsibility we hold to protect the environment, but also, our employees, customers and the public.”

Continuing to evolve

Throughout the company’s 38 years in operation, Clean Harbors has always looked for opportunities to grow its presence in the environmental services space.

This growth has been spurred by an emphasis on aggressive acquisitions and investments. In the last decade alone, as the economy sputtered in the aftermath of the Recession, Clean Harbors doubled down on its investments.

After a series of acquisitions in the oil recovery, re-refining and recycling space, the company opened its new state-of-the-art commercial hazardous waste incinerator in El Dorado, Arkansas, in February 2017, making it the first such incinerator to open in the U.S. in 20 years.

The facility specializes in high-temperature incineration of regulated waste materials—such as industrial and laboratory chemicals, manufacturing byproducts, medical waste, fertilizers and other solid and liquid materials—that would otherwise be hazardous to the environment and public health if not properly managed.

“Today, it is the most technologically advanced incinerator in the world,” Gerstenberg says. “This facility … expanded the capacity of our network by 70,000 tons, or 14 percent. It also boasts a one-of-a-kind air pollution control system. The $120 million project was the single largest investment in company history.”

The company followed the opening of this facility with the acquisition of Veolia’s U.S. industrial cleaning business earlier this year, which the company cited as a driver of “significant scale and capabilities” for the organization.

“We are excited about the potential benefits to our customers, shareholders and industrial services employees from this transaction,” McKim said at the time of the agreement. “The addition of Veolia’s U.S. industrial cleaning services division to our business will enable us to more rapidly grow our presence in the specialty industrial services market. … In addition, we expect this acquisition will drive more waste volumes into our disposal network of incinerators, landfills and other waste treatment facilities.”

As the company nears its fourth decade in business, Gerstenberg says Clean Harbors has no desire to slow down in its pursuit of future growth opportunities.

“The hazardous waste industry is an $11 billion industry. With $1.5 billion in waste services provided in 2017, the company has a lot of years to grow,” Gerstenberg says. “We will continue to invest in our people and infrastructure, we will look to grow our businesses organically and by selective acquisitions, we will continue to invest in the customer, and we will continue to look for ways to drive efficiencies that improve our service delivery and increase customer satisfaction.”

The author is the editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at aredling@gie.net.