Loud booming and crashing sounds of waste hauler trucks emptying bins can start before dawn in Urbana — and the noise has been waking many residents for decades.
One resident said garbage collection comes at 5:30 in the morning and makes a considerable amount of noise. Another said she witnessed the collection at 4:30 a.m. and even 3:30 a.m. One resident even claims to have heard loud dumpster crashes as early as 2:30 a.m.
Kate Maguire, who lives near the intersection of Iowa Street and Orchard Street, started a recent conversation among her west Urbana neighbors. As a new Urbana resident with a career in waste management, Maguire had a lot to say about Urbana’s status quo after living there for a year.
She said she believes there could be a myriad of underlying problems, including poor routing, an aged fleet and safety concerns that could be alleviated by adopting more side-load trucks, albeit she acknowledges the potential costs to the haulers.
The frustrated West Urbana Neighborhood Association (WUNA) members are concerned about the noise, number and environmental impact of multiple haulers on the same street. They went online over a few days at the end of June and the beginning of July to discuss a solution in response to an email thread Maguire started. Some have complained to the haulers, others the city — to no avail. Some said the waster haulers lobbied vigorously to sway the city council and the city council refused to take action.
Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said this month: “It comes up periodically but none of the council members had mentioned it. The system makes no sense. It’s terrible for me to say that, I know, but that’s where we are at.”
City officials said there are no hours-of-operation ordinances that would stop operations before dawn, but Urbana has some regulations limiting the days and times of trash hauler pick-ups. In Urbana, curbside collection is regulated by zone and day of the week and haulers are required to submit reports and cooperate with truck inspections.
And, the complaint systems for local residents lead to few, if any changes. Regarding the complaints, Urbana Public Works Sustainability and Resilience Officer Scott Tess said no rules are actually being broken.
“Neither the noise ordinance nor the hauler ordinance regulates the operating hours of garbage hauling by trucks, which are in reasonably good working order. Doing so would require a new ordinance,” Tess said in an interview.
He said that the noise ordinance, in its current state, addresses raucous property noise levels, construction or maintenance, mechanical stationary noise, and automobile noise — stopping short of regulating garbage haulers. Under Urbana’s current city codes, garbage haulers would not be in violation.
Tess said that updating the noise ordinances to include hauler trucks would be impractical to enforce and act on supposed violations. He said if change is desired, it would be more practical to enforce an hours-of-operation ordinance.
Champaign Environmental Sustainability Specialist Nichole Millage said the city council actually voted against an hours-of-operation ordinance in a special meeting study session on April 20, 2018.
“This is a system that has seemingly been working for the City of Champaign for several decades now,” Millage said in an interview. “The City Council has not expressed any interest in discussing this topic at this time.”
The special meeting study session considered two proposals: collection zoning in residential areas and a regulation on start times for garbage collection — a proposed 4 a.m. start time for commercial zones and a 6 a.m. start time for residential zones. On collection zoning, five haulers opposed the proposal while three were “willing to adjust.” Regarding start times, four haulers were opposed to the 6 a.m. start time, while four said that it would not affect them.
Ultimately, the council decided that the volume of complaints were not high enough to make changes. Comparing the advantages and disadvantages, they also concluded that the alternative approaches could not address all the citizens’ concerns.
Cindi Long, who said she has worked with Illini Recycling for decades, said they try to accommodate when receiving a complaint, but environmental regulations and time restrictions are factors in hauler service.
“Garbage cannot sit on the truck overnight according to the EPA,” Long said. “If the landfill were open all day, we would start at 6 a.m. and everyone would be happy. But in order to reach the landfill by 3 p.m., they have to start at 4 a.m.”
She said the job isn’t one everyone would readily accept and sympathized with the workers themselves: “We don’t want to burden these workers any more than we have to with needless restrictions… We also want to account for the midday heat by starting earlier.”
She also said the trucks are equipped with settings to go faster at the cost of creating more noise, so it is not allowed before 6 a.m.
Illini Recycling services Champaign and Savoy. When asked why they don’t service Urbana as well, Long said: “Urbana’s zone-day structure is incompatible with the resources that we have as a business. We don’t have the resources to basically double up three days a week.”
There are only a few licensed haulers in Champaign and Urbana.
ABC Sanitary Hauling, GFL Environmental, Inc. (formerly Area Disposal Service) and Republic Services can be used by residents in both cities. Illini Recycling only services Champaign and Savoy. Chris’ Service Co., Dale Levitt Disposal and Mel’s Disposal also service Urbana.
In the aforementioned Champaign City Council meeting from 2018, meeting notes indicate that there were then 14 licensed haulers. Today, due to acquisitions, there are less than half that number.
CU-CitizenAccess left phone messages with ABC Sanitary Hauling, Chris’ Service Co., and Mel’s Disposal. Emails were sent to Dale Levitt Disposal. None responded to a request to comment except for Illini Recycling. The phone numbers for Republic and GFL led to corporate customer support, who were unaware of where to direct the media for local comment.
Past proposals led to little change, sparking discussion
“Crashing dumpster syndrome is what 90% of people complain about,” West Urbana resident Thomas Schmidt said in an interview. “Not sure if they [Urbana’s government] are sympathetic to the garbage collectors or if it is simply inertia.” Schmidt, who lives near the intersection of Coler Street and High Street, said he’s even pleaded with neighboring landlords to switch haulers.
Every resident has the option to choose their own hauler. There are fewer options than there used to be. In Champaign, there are now only four that offer weekly residential trash and recycling services. “The number of private haulers has decreased consistently over the years,” Millage said.
In Urbana, there are six licensed haulers. Mayor Marlin recalls there being at least 15. She noted that with fewer haulers and more territory to cover per hauler, they also have to start even earlier.
Long of Illini Recycling claimed the number of private haulers in the area was once close to 40. Many of those companies disappeared with acquisitions by larger companies like Republic Services and GFL Environmental.
Long said Republic initially bought five hauler companies to enter the local market. Last year two acquisitions were made by GFL last June for Advanced Local Market Area and Hayden Sanitary. Illini Recycling received 400 customers over three months as a result of what Long characterizes as a “sloppy transition.” The latest acquisition was by GFL as recently as March of 2023 when the company bought Shaffer’s Sanitary Co.
West Urbana, which is bordered by Lincoln Avenue, Vine Street, Main Street and Florida Avenue, has had a neighborhood association since the 1970s. Today, its members are “loosely structured” by a steering committee and a coordinator, but works in collaboration with city officials, residents and property owners.
Outside of meetings, members can interact via three specialized email lists: a main list to share information related to the neighborhood, an announcement list and a “town square” list for discussions and sharing opinions on various topics.
In her message to the main email list, Maguire said subscription trash service is not common in a municipality, but rather tailored to rural areas, townships and unincorporated areas.
“Franchising was mentioned as a possibility, and that is worth exploring. It has the potential to reduce costs and improve efficiencies,” she said in her email. “To truly understand the system, a deep-dive analysis should be conducted.”
“Potentially the solution would be to get the whole block or street to have one trash company and then pressure that company to follow the noise ordinance,” WUNA member Becky Mead said in response to Maguire’s email. “Years ago I went to meetings about the trash truck noise problem and the trash companies showed up and blustered about how they needed to break the ordinance because they are going further to the landfill than they used to — so they need to go back and forth twice in a morning and need to start very early to do that.”
“I can understand the frustration,” Mayor Marlin said in an interview. “I live in a cul-de-sac, and with my neighbors, we all contract with one hauler to minimize the number of days a truck has to be there, but that doesn’t always happen and doesn’t always work easily anywhere.”
Marlin sympathized with the cause and the frustrated Urbana citizens, but said that most of the complaints come from West Urbana. The area is composed of homeowners often adjacent to rental properties, which she said makes it harder to coordinate to decide on a singular hauler.
Maguire also mentioned analyzing transfer station capacities as one way to understand if existing infrastructure is sufficient.
“Something I have seen happen in other areas is there is more collection than the transfer stations can handle, so they turn away packer trucks,” she said in an email. “This is a major issue that causes huge collection problems in areas where that happens but I have no idea if that’s happening in Champaign/Urbana.”
Both the transfer station and the nearest landfill are owned by Republic Services. Republic charges rates for the transfer station and for use of their landfill. For Illini Recycling, Long said, it’s more economic to make the drive to the GFL landfill 40 miles away in Clinton, Illinois, about a 50-minute drive from Champaign-Urbana.
Ideas for reforming garbage hauling have been discussed before. Urbana has had at least three City Council Meetings addressing residents’ concerns regarding garbage collection: August 18, 2014, January 11, 2016 and April 25, 2016.
In the 2014 meeting, an Urbana High School student even proposed detailed changes to the system, but according to WUNA member Becky Mead, “his [amazing] proposal went nowhere with the City Council.” Jones describes that meeting as being “very pro-trash company.”
Another resident, Carolyn Baxley, who lives on the 500 block of W. Main Street, referred to that meeting as a circus. She said herself and others have “complained about this several times to our City Council representative, to the Mayor, and to the City Council as a whole, but they have been unwilling to intervene.” When the issue was put on the council agenda, she alleged “the haulers literally packed the Council chambers with noisy hecklers who spoke vehemently against any change, so the Council buckled and nothing was done.”
Of the proposal, Mayor Marlin said it was good and she hoped to tackle the issue in recent years, but other priorities emerged:
“It is not that I don’t recognize that it is something that could absolutely be improved, but we’ve been dealing with COVID, gun violence, getting out of our financial hole… These problems were more urgent and have exhausted our time,” Marlin said. “I don’t want to sound cavalier, I just have not yet had the time and capital.”
Stakeholders don’t agree on single solution
Maguire said in her email that the discussion requires many voices. “Taxpayers, transfer station operators, material recovery facility operators, haulers — are all stakeholders in this discussion.”
Even the cities have a stake, as they bid out their own trash collection to the haulers. Currently, both of those contracts went to Republic Services. They’ve considered joint service using multiple haulers before when bidding a new contract, but it has yet to be done. Recycling in Urbana is currently handled by ABC Sanitary Hauling.
Long of Illini Recycling said the city council meetings represented a threat by the government to overextend its control over their industry, and many of the current problems could be tied to existing government ordinances, citing Champaign’s recycling ordinance.
“Champaign requires each licensed hauler to provide free, weekly, curbside pickup for recycling,” she said. “That doubles the number of trucks on the roads, since we have a high participation rate in recycling from our customers.”
When franchising was considered by the Urbana City Council, Public Works’s Tess said that there was a guarantee that all haulers get business.
“If you guarantee each hauler business, how do you put pressure on price? Why wouldn’t they simply markup their prices? If the city [Urbana] seriously considers franchising, they should go with a competitive bidding system,” he said.
Long said she believes the crowd pushing for a franchised service represents a loud minority.
“Garbage haulers are being trusted with the contents of people’s personal lives – their trash! You inevitably learn a lot about someone simply picking up their trash. A relationship is truly developed between the hauler and the client,” Long said.
And because larger companies like Republic are, in part, responsible for the changing landscape in garbage collection, she predicted a frustrating future if franchised service were the norm.
“When you call a big company, you’re placed on hold for a while just to talk to someone in their corporate structure who does not know the local intricacies.”
However, this already occurs, as both Republic Services and GFL Environmental, Inc. use corporate numbers and representatives could not connect a reporter to local management.
“The industry itself has changed so much over the last few decades. 50 years ago, haulers would enter houses and empty your kitchen trash can,” Long said about the evolution of the industry.
Unclear complaint processes evolving to new needs
Champaign saw an increase in complaints in 2021, when CU-CitizenAccess previously reported Republic had a flurry of cancellations, but received fewer complaints last year, Millage said.
Similarly, Urbana has only logged 34 garbage-related noise complaints since 2006.
Some complaints go beyond noise, citing damage to the roads with a high volume of heavy garbage trucks on one street, and others complain of increased CO2 emissions.
Urbana’s Tess said “It is reasonable to presume that franchised garbage collection would bring less pollution and wear-and-tear,” while Champaign’s Millage said “I have not received this complaint from a resident in a long time now.”
An additional frustration is that it is not clear where to file a complaint.
Urbana’s garbage-related noise complaints are logged by Urbana Compliance Officer Jason Arrasmith in Community Development. Tess said Public Works also receives noise complaints because residents don’t know where to send them. Even some officials in Urbana Public Works weren’t sure. One suggested speaking to the provider directly.
“Jason Arrasmith handles nuisance reports. But the only relevant criteria here is the noise ordinance which does not regulate haulers,” Marlin said.
Arrasmith said Urbana’s website used to advertise his role, but it was later removed as he received too many complaints outside his purview.
Arrasmith would do more than simply log the complaint. If the hauler is known, they are informed of the complaint and asked to adjust their schedule at the subject location. Tess said that the haulers are under no legal obligation to do so.
In Champaign, there used to be no mechanism for submitting these types of complaints. In 2021, Millage acted as an unofficial liaison between residents and the hauler companies. Now, she has absorbed that role entirely and boasts good relationships with the hauler companies that she has worked hard to cultivate.
“I have contacts at each one, & if any issues arise, they are all very responsive & they work hard to resolve said issues as quickly as possible,” she said in an email. “If we receive a noise complaint, I reach out to the hauler about the complaint & they do their best to accommodate the situation.” Millage “would rather avoid” charging companies a fee because she said she believes directly solving an issue with the hauler is more efficient.
Still, the west Urbana residents said they think some action needs to be taken by public officials.
“I think it should change, I really do,” Marlin said.
Editor’s note: The original story incorrectly said both Champaign and Urbana had some regulations limiting the days and times of pickups. This has been corrected to just Urbana.