Photos: Brian Kraft

Alpine Waste & Recycling President John Griffith always has looked one step ahead. Eighteen years after he first opened the doors at what was then Alpine Disposal, Griffith credits the Denver-based company’s success to its strategy, which has been based principally on innovation. (Alpine has a compounded annual revenue growth [CARG] of greater than 30 percent annually.)

From incorporating robots and artificial intelligence into its Altogether Recycling material recovery facility (MRF) to being the first recycler in Colorado to accept a wide range of materials (including plastics Nos. 3-7, aseptic cartons and rigid plastics), Alpine has proved to be resourceful.

“Being opportunistic has provided us with a lot of great chances to grow business,” Griffith says. “Being opportunistic is why we got into the recycling piece of the business and waste diversion.”

And it has paid off. Like any other recycling company that is at the mercy of commodity markets, Alpine has been able to smooth out the effects of these fluctuations through its emphasis on innovation, says Brent Hildebrand, vice president of recycling for Alpine.

“Any processor will tell you the cost to process recycling is continually increasing, so it’s important to always work on what’s next,” Hildebrand says.

Local commitment

Alpine Waste & Recycling is the largest privately owned waste and recycling company in Colorado. With more than 120 trucks and 250 employees, Alpine hauls more than 300,000 tons of materials per year. This year it will process more than 140,000 tons of recyclables, breaking its own previous record of 120,000 tons. Many of the processed commodities are sold to end users throughout the state, while the company exports some mixed paper, old corrugated containers (OCC) and plastic.

Alpine’s campus includes its Altogether Recycling MRF, its East Regional Landfill that opened in 2010 and its compost processing facility, which opened in 2012. Considered a hub for other companies’ recycling processing, especially those in rural communities, incoming materials are picked up throughout Colorado by various haulers.

The company underwent a $5 million expansion at its MRF in 2015 that doubled its recycling capacity. With nearly all new Machinex equipment and twice as many transfer belts, Hildebrand says the investment made Alpine the highest-capacity recycling processor in a 10-state region. (The MRF, which was first opened in 2007, also has a Bollegraaf baler supplied by Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, Stamford, Connecticut, and an OCC screen from Bulk Handling Systems [BHS], Eugene, Oregon.)

“Every time we’ve made an investment in waste diversion, it’s paid for itself,” Griffith says.

Alpine’s roots are not in recycling. Yet the company has grown its presence in the sector considerably in the decade since it first began processing recyclables. By 2006, Alpine had a customer base of nearly 2,000 commercial accounts. Today, more than 12,000 commercial customers rely on Alpine’s services. These companies include Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., The Denver Zoo, Whole Foods Market Inc. and Xcel Energy Inc. Griffith says the company’s work consists of about 80 percent commercial and 20 percent residential, with nearly all of the residential material coming from contracts with homeowners associations.

Griffith started Alpine Disposal in 1999 with one truck. The company added roll-off services a few years later and changed its name to Alpine Waste Solutions. In 2005, company executives realized the growing interest in single-stream collection and got to work building a single-stream MRF. Alpine changed its name again in 2007, this time to reflect its wide scope of services and capabilities, and that same year Alpine Waste & Recycling opened its $7 million Altogether Recycling MRF.

Beyond the name changes, the simple story of how Alpine got its original name conveys Griffith’s plan-ahead mindset. Even when putting a name to his business, Griffith considered growth. He says he chose the name Alpine for two reasons: 1) “When I started back in those days, it was before the internet was a big deal and people would find [companies] in a phone book, so I wanted a letter that was at the beginning of the phone book.” 2) The word alpine is associated with the Denver environment. “We wanted to create a brand name that people will identify as local, and alpine is a word that relates to high country, a mountainous area,” he notes.

As for its bear mascot, that too was simple yet planned: Griffith explains that the collection trucks of surrounding competitors—Waste Management and BFI—at the time featured their logos. Griffith figured a mascot would look even better—and help to create a brand. Along with its locally focused name, Alpine chose an indigenous animal to Colorado for its mascot.

With its own identity, Griffith says Alpine became the first private hauler in the Colorado market to offer single-stream collection and processing. This had more to do with Griffith’s willingness to modernize his business rather than stick with what everyone else was doing. While other recycling companies “were hesitant” to sell off their fleet of dual-body trucks, Griffith saw opportunity.

He says, “Most of the big companies were slow to convert to single stream because [material] wasn’t worth as much as [dual-stream] was. Everybody had all those dual-body trucks. We had one and we saw it as a great opportunity to differentiate ourselves from our competition.” Griffith adds, “We sold our dual-body truck and started collecting single stream.”

Collecting knowledge

Alpine’s accomplishments have not come on a silver platter. It has taken a lot of time, research—and pizzas. Griffith hired Hildebrand to help Alpine launch its recycling division. In the beginning, says Hildebrand, he and Alpine Sales Manager Grant Parsons would park the car and walk the streets of Denver together, cold calling customers about recycling. He says he still does this today.

When reminiscing about those early days, Hildebrand says phrases like, “It was a blast” and “It was fun, but it wasn’t easy.”

“In late 2008 is when the big recession hit, and it was really tough on everyone, including us. At times it was very stressful, working seven days a week, but it’s all been worth it,” he says.

As Alpine sought out more customers, it realized how much demand for recycling was truly out there. When Alpine starts servicing a new company today, Hildebrand and others at Alpine spend some time with them, explaining which materials are accepted in its single-stream program and which aren’t. These meetings are typically set up at the new customer’s place of business, with as many employees or residents present as possible. “We have pizza, talk about the program and what they’re going to see,” says Hildebrand. “We have gone floor to floor and trained individuals, which takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it on the back end to get the quality into the plant.”

In addition to educating its customers, Alpine has spent considerable time training its sales team. This team of 10 understands prices in each designated market: grocery stores and retail, office buildings, homeowners associations, industrial, apartments and other sectors. Griffith says this team has played a large role in Alpine’s success.

Griffin explains, “We approached the market with a professional sales team, and it’s necessary for what we sell. Because we have such a comprehensive, complex product for our industry, we maintained a sales team of 10 people and focused on a vertical business.”

Alpine also reaches out to others to learn and grow. By “collecting knowledge,” as Hildebrand says, Alpine talks with other operators to see what they are up to. This could be related to safety, processing or any industry issues. Alpine extends the offer to other recyclers seeking info about the western company.

A prime example of what other recyclers can learn from Alpine is its use of robotic sorting equipment at Altogether Recycling. Earlier this year, the Carton Council of North America helped to launch a pilot program that uses artificial intelligence from AMP Robotics, Denver, to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of carton recycling at Alpine Waste & Recycling. Hildebrand says he hopes this particular innovation helps recyclers across the country. (Read more about that installation and robotic sorting in “Taking (quality) control,” starting on page 82.)

“We’re always working on what’s next, and what’s next is robotic sorting. And we feel it’s the real deal, so I hope I can help other processors learn from what we’re doing as well,” Hildebrand says.

Competitive advantage

As for what’s next for Alpine Waste & Recycling, Hildebrand says the company expects to attract several additional large customers in the next year or so. Having enough capacity to meet this growth is a challenge, Griffith says.

Despite this, Alpine plans to continue to invest, innovate and expand its services. The company’s fluid business model allows for this resourceful and adaptive attitude. It also has been what has set it apart—the company accepts glass and expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam and offers customized, monthly Automated Sustainability Reports to each client, showcasing trends, weights and performances.

“If you’re going to keep an extra container, why wouldn’t you want to have the program with the greatest breadth of materials accepted?” Griffith asks. “Every time we add these things, it gives us what others don’t have, and that’s a clear competitive advantage.”

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at mworkman@gie.net.