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Casella’s dominance in the Northeast leads to monopoly concerns in Vermont

A photo of a pile of cardboard recycling in front of a blue sorting machine inside a large warehouse.
Henry Epp
Piles of sorted cardboard wait to be baled at Casella's Rutland recycling facility, one of the many facets of the company's operations in Vermont.

If you bought a share of Casella stock on March 12, 2009, it would have cost you just 55 cents.

According to company CEO John Casella, the Rutland waste firm had spent the previous decade investing heavily in infrastructure. It purchased and built landfills and recycling facilities. It installed systems to capture landfill gas to turn into energy. Then, the Great Recession hit.

“The economy collapsed, commodity markets collapsed, and the financial markets collapsed, all of it out of our control,” Casella said in an interview with VPR at his company’s Rutland headquarters.

In John Casella’s telling, these cascading crises hit just as the company had taken on significant debt, leading its stock price to languish for years. In 2015, a group of activist investors, dissatisfied with Casella’s financial performance, attempted a hostile takeover of the company, pushing to oust John Casella from his family business. But Casella managed to hang on, and that share worth 55 cents in 2009 ended last week at $85.

Casella Waste Systems is now a $4 billion enterprise spanning much of the northeastern U.S., with collection routes, recycling facilities, transfer stations and landfills. Its steady expansion is a feat few other Vermont-based corporations have accomplished. But amid the company’s regional success, some residents question whether Casella has gained too much control of the waste industry in its home state.

Disclosure: Casella Waste Systems is a VPR underwriter.

Steady growth

Casella wasn’t always a regional corporation with 2,900 employees and nearly $900 million in annual revenue. It started in 1975 when John Casella’s brother Doug began hauling trash with a pickup truck in Rutland. John joined the business a year later. The company built Vermont’s first recycling facility in 1977, and grew over the next two decades. In 1997, the company went public, offering its shares on the Nasdaq exchange.

A green building with the word "Casella" on the side, next to a small parking lot.
Henry Epp
Casella, which is nearing $1 billion in annual revenue, is headquartered in this Rutland office building.

If you’re familiar with Casella, you likely know them as a company that picks up trash, recycling and compost at the curb. They charge a fee for that service, and it’s a lucrative business: The company’s collection operations brought in $442 million last year. But that’s just one part of what they do. Casella also operates transfer stations, recycling facilities and compost facilities, where they charge other trash hauling companies to drop their waste. From there, some of that refuse goes to another part of Casella’s empire: landfills. Thanks to environmental regulations and local opposition, those are an increasingly scarce resource in the Northeast.

“That makes them very well positioned in the region. They control a lot of capacity,” said Cole Rosengren, the lead editor of Waste Dive, an industry publication.

Waste companies that own or operate landfills make money by charging what are known as “tip fees” to haulers that dump trash in their landfill. Tip fees in the Northeast are the highest in the country, averaging nearly $70 dollars per ton in 2021, according to recent industry data. Casella owns or has long-term operating agreements for nine active landfills, stretching from Maine to western New York and Pennsylvania, and they’re currently pushing to open a new landfill in northern New Hampshire. Their regional network of disposal sites gives them significant control over the price of dumping trash in the Northeast. It’s a potent business model. Even Casella’s competitors in the collection business end up paying Casella to ultimately handle and dispose of the waste they collect.

“It's a limited asset, so you can charge more for the ability to use it,” Rosengren said. “That's led to them having a pretty high stock price.”

A map of New England and New York with markings showing Casella's operations throughout the region.
Casella Waste Systems, Courtesy
A map distributed to Casella investors in March shows the extent of the company's reach and operations throughout the Northeast.

The region’s shrinking landfill capacity gives the company the freedom to increase prices with little fear they will lose business, though John Casella argues competition from other disposal facilities in the region keeps prices in check. In their latest annual filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company said it raised landfill tip fees nearly 4% last year and hiked its collection prices by just over 4%. Still, on Casella’s most recent earnings call in February, investment analysts questioned why the company isn’t jacking up prices even more.

“Why can't you get more price in the landfill now, given the scarcity value?” asked Michael Hoffman, an analyst for the investment firm Stifel.

Casella Chief Financial Officer Ned Colletta tried to assure Hoffman that the company is “getting quite a bit of price.” Casella has also told investors it is committed to raising its prices faster than the company’s own rate of inflation.

Mergers and acquisitions

In addition to Casella's waste collection business, plus its control of much of the downstream infrastructure — allowing it to generate revenue from its own rivals — there’s another way the company has fought off competitors: It’s bought them. In 2021 alone, the Casella acquired 10 different entities that generated a total of over $88 million in annual revenue. This includes a major trash and recycling firm in Connecticut, and one of the largest compost companies in Vermont.

More from VPR: Casella Buys Grow Compost Of Moretown, Expanding Its Control Over Vermont’s Waste Stream

Through early March of this year, Casella had already bought companies with another $30 million in annual revenue. Most of the purchases are known as “tuck-in acquisitions.”

“If you're already in a region, and you buy somebody [who] runs a few trucks next door, that's a tuck-in to your existing operation,” said Rosengren, the industry reporter. “They do a lot of that and really densify their growth.”

Control of many of the region’s landfills and a healthy appetite for acquisitions means the company that started out with a single truck in Rutland is now one of the dominant players in the Northeast’s waste industry. And Casella intends to keep growing, perhaps even expanding outside of the Northeast in the coming years, CEO John Casella said. The company has a goal to add $30 million of revenue every year by buying up other companies.

“This is not necessarily just a Casella thing,” Rosengren said. “We see this around the country with these large waste companies. The consolidations are getting more and more heightened in recent years.”

"This is not necessarily just a Casella thing... The consolidations are getting more and more heightened in recent years."
Cole Rosengren, Waste Dive lead editor

CEO John Casella said the company is in a competitive market for acquisitions, bidding for smaller companies alongside other national waste firms like WM (formerly known as Waste Management), Republic Services and Waste Connections. Each of those firms are significantly larger than Casella. But while the company faces a competitive field on the national scale, it doesn’t have much to worry about in its home state of Vermont. That’s led some residents to question whether Casella has too much dominance.

The monopoly question

Next door to its Rutland headquarters is one of Casella’s recycling facilities. Paper and cardboard wait to be sorted into bales. A front-end loader scoops piles of steel from the floor into a dumpster, and pushes them down, like cramming clothes into a suitcase. This facility is just one of the ways Casella makes money in Vermont.

The graphic below shows how waste streams work in Vermont:

An illustration showing the path trash, recycling and compost takes through several different Casella-owned operations in Vermont.
Elodie Reed
If you throw something in the trash, recycling or compost in the Green Mountain State, there’s a good chance Casella will handle it at some point, and it stands to profit.

For a fee, Casella picks up trash, recycling and compost at the curb from residents and businesses. That waste is usually brought to a transfer station. Casella owns or operates 14 of those in Vermont. Casella’s competitors in the hauling business also rely on these stations to drop their waste, and pay Casella to do so. From there, recycling goes to sorting facilities, like the one in Rutland, or to the three others Casella owns or operates in the state. Anything that can’t be reused goes to the state’s only landfill, which is owned by Casella.

Essentially, if you’re throwing something in the trash, recycling or compost in the Green Mountain State, there’s a good chance Casella will handle it at some point, and it stands to profit.

“Casella really is nearing a monopoly in terms of their control of the disposal and recycling and composting systems,” said Paul Burns, the head of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), which often clashes with Casella at the Statehouse.

A key part of Casella’s control is its landfill in Coventry. In 2020, that facility took in 84% of the state’s solid waste. As on the regional scale, owning and operating the state’s only landfill gives the company immense power to raise the price of dumping trash.

Sarah Reeves, the executive director of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, sees that firsthand. CSWD operates six sites where residents can drop-off waste, and the trash they collect goes to a Casella transfer station. On July 1, Casella will bump up CSWD’s rate at the transfer station by 8%, up from $112 to $121 per ton, Reeves said. For now, CSWD will eat that cost, but they might not be able to keep that up if rates keep rising.

“If they do, then we would have to pass on that cost to our customers,” Reeves said.

The high cost of dumping trash in Vermont has led to some complaints from customers and rival trash haulers, according to Josh Kelly, the solid waste program manager at the Department of Environmental Conservation. But regulators have little recourse.

“There's not any oversight of tipping fees,” Kelly explained. “We don't even have a reporting function for that. When I get asked, I only have anecdotal data.”

A man with grey hair, wearing glasses and a black shirt
Casella Waste Systems, Courtesy
CEO John Casella joined the trash hauling company founded by his brother in the mid-1970s. It's since grown into a $4 billion regional corporation.

With only one place to landfill trash, Vermont’s tip fees were the third highest in the country in 2021,according to an industry analysis. While Casella points to its control of scarce landfill space as an asset to its investors, CEO John Casella argued it's not the company’s fault there’s only one landfill. Instead, Casella blames environmental groups and the “regulatory environment” for Vermont’s limited space to dispose of trash.

“We were gritty enough to get through that process and put that facility in place,” Casella said.

That self-proclaimed “grit” allowed Casella to overcome significant opposition from residents in both Vermont and Quebec in recent years to receive a permit in 2019 to expand the Coventry landfill. Residents on both sides of the border had raised concerns that runoff from the landfill, known as leachate, could seep into nearby Lake Memphramagog, potentially contaminating the lake with toxic chemicals known as PFAS.

Memphramagog, which crosses the international border, provides drinking water for over 175,000 residents in Quebec. In 2021, the company agreed to develop and test a system for removing PFAS from leachate at the site — a first in Vermont. The company said it has now completed the first of several phases to expand the landfill.

Competition and contracts

Given its extensive control of the state’s waste disposal capacity, multiple small haulers told VPR that Casella is their only option for disposing of the waste they collect, leaving them at the company’s pricing whim. Some small haulers declined to be interviewed for this story out of concern Casella could retaliate against them by hiking their rates.

But that’s not the case for James Trask, the co-owner of Duffy’s Waste & Recycling, based in Fairfax. His company collects trash, recycling and compost for about 4,000 customers. Trask gives Casella credit for taking on the responsibility of operating the state’s landfill.

A man stands in front of a green wall with the words "Duffy's Waste and Recycling" printed on it.
Henry Epp
James Trask, the co-owner of Duffy's Waste & Recycling, said he gives his larger rival Casella credit for running Vermont's only landfill.

“Being able to work with Casella and just dump our waste there is a huge convenience for us,” Trask said. “I don't have to worry about running a landfill. I just show up at their facility, dump my stuff. It allows me to focus on creating the best service we can for customers.”

Trask also said he’s never seen exorbitant increases in tip fees from Casella. Though he’s also competing with Casella for trash collection contracts, he’s never felt boxed out by the larger company. While Casella may be in a dominant position in terms of trash disposal, other small haulers contacted for this story agreed that there’s room for them in the hauling side of the industry.

But Casella has run into legal trouble in the past for its contract practices. In 2011, the company paid $1 million to settle with the Vermont Attorney General’s office. The company had included language in thousands of contracts requiring customers to notify them of competitors’ offers and give the company at least four months’ notice before ending a contract.

Casella said at the time that language was included in error, after a previous agreement nine years earlier with the attorney general. Then, in 2014, it settled with New York’s attorney general for similar contract behavior.

Worker safety and complaints

Besides its legal settlements over its contract practices, regulators like Josh Kelly at the DEC said Casella has generally been a good corporate citizen in Vermont. But it's in a business that comes with health and safety risks. That was most evident last August, when Jeremy Spaulding, a Casella driver, was assigned to swap out some dumpsters at a farm in Addison.

According to records from the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA), Spaulding was loading two dumpsters onto a flatbed truck on Aug. 5, 2021. He’d maneuvered one onto the flatbed and was preparing the second. The flatbed was tilted down, the bin held back with a cable attached to a hook welded to the truck. The hook broke, and the bin slid down the flatbed and crushed Spaulding between the two dumpsters. He was pronounced dead at the scene, eight days shy of his 31st birthday.

VOSHA fined Casella $16,383 for not providing Spaulding with proper training on the maneuver. Casella also agreed to hold an immediate company-wide training on this type of procedure. In January, the company notified the state that it changed its policy, requiring drivers to use a forklift or other device to lift dumpsters onto a truck, to avoid tilting a flatbed.

“Jeremy was a valued member of our team, and this was a tragic accident,” said company spokesperson Joe Fusco in a written statement. “We examine every safety incident or accident closely and look for ways to learn, improve, and adapt.”

Besides Spaulding’s death, a VPR public records request found that two Casella employees have made complaints to VOSHA in the past five years, both of which were dismissed after investigations. A routine agency inspection of a Casella facility in Middlebury 2017 turned up minor violations, for which the company paid a $2,800 fine.

The company also faces a lawsuit from several former drivers in Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine who allege Casella did not pay them for routine overtime hours. The plaintiffs say Casella automatically deducted a 30-minute meal break from drivers’ pay, though the plaintiffs say they routinely worked through that break. The plaintiffs are seeking to make the case a class-action suit. Casella has moved to dismiss it, arguing the lawsuit has no merit.

"It was filed by a law firm that has sued other companies in the solid waste industry making the exact same claim," Fusco said. "It seems to be their business model."

A federal judge will hold a hearing on Casella's motion on May 2.

More from VPR: Former drivers sue Casella, saying the company did not pay them for overtime

Future business and regulation

Outside of the business world, Casella has also thrown its weight around the Vermont Statehouse. It spent an average of $110,000 on lobbyists in each of the last three legislative bienniums. The company also makes regular contributions to both Republicans and Democrats, though Casella’s largest gifts in recent years have gone to Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Given its political clout and industry dominance in Vermont, Paul Burns with VPIRG thinks a time might come when lawmakers will want to regulate Casella as it does companies with true monopolies, like electric utilities.

“There may be a time where it is appropriate for state lawmakers to take a look at this from a policy standpoint,” Burns said. “Has our waste industry, essentially, backed into a monopoly situation?”

CEO John Casella pushes back against the suggestion that the company he’s grown from a single truck into a $4 billion corporation is nearing a monopoly.

“We've invested right, we've done the job right,” Casella said. “We are the major player in Vermont, and I don't know that I would characterize it as a monopoly.”

Casella said his focus is on the future, where an increasing amount of waste is diverted from landfills into recycling, compost or other new forms of reuse. However the waste industry changes in the coming years — in Vermont and beyond — Casella intends to be there to handle it and to profit.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp:


Updated: April 29, 2022 at 2:42 PM EDT
This story has been updated to clarify that Casella spent an average of $110,000 on lobbyists in each of the last three two-year legislative cycles, known as bienniums.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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