United Waste Systems' moves in Michigan recently seem like a classic case of Big Guy vs. Small Guy. Three months ago, United bought a landfill in Pierson, Mich. Recently, the company contacted several smaller firms in the area about buying them. Then in late April, United announced it was increasing the tipping fee at the landfill by 25 percent, effective May 1.
The smaller companies believe United is trying to take over the market, and the rate increase is part of their muscling tactics. United says that's not the kind of company they are, and rate increases don't require lots of notice.
United points out that the landfill was losing money before the company took it over.
We can't say who's right. United is trying to do what it can to improve the company, whether it's by acquisitions or increasing revenue.
But it's an example of the perilous plight of the small waste firm. They're highly vulnerable to attractive buyout offers, and if they resolve to remain independent, they're vulnerable to cost increases or other competitive pressures. Those are the factors the big guys can absorb much more easily.
We hope that when a small firm sells out, it's because it's the choice the owners want - not because the alternative is steady decline or bankruptcy. Survival of the strongest certainly has sway in industry, but everyone should get their fair shot.
Women in waste
Marsha Serlin's story is one that the waste industry can be proud of.
Serlin owns United Scrap Metal, which buys old metal, paper and plastic and sells them to materials processors. Last week she received the National Small Business Subcontractor of the Year Award - the first time in the award's 29-year history that it went to a woman.
Serlin was in the middle of a divorce and was nearly broke when she started the company. All she had was her brother's help and a rented truck. She literally knocked on doors to generate business.
That was in 1978. Today she owns a $40 million company with 120 employees.
Such a success story is great in itself. But it's particularly gratifying for a woman to be behind it. In such a male-dominated industry, where most people wouldn't even think of a woman running a business, Serlin's achievements help expand opportunities for women in general and give the waste industry diversity that it needs. That will help open the door for a wider range of talent and ideas. And that can only help.