EDITOR'S NOTE: This story from our November issue was written and edited before CleanScapes announced it was being acquired by San Francisco-based Recology for $66 million. CEO Chris Martin says the company will continue in Washington under the CleanScapes name and the management team will remain intact.
While growing up in the leafy village of Millbrook, New York, in the Hudson River Valley 90 minutes from Manhattan, Chris Martin didn’t give a lot of thought to his future. If anything, he figured he’d end up in journalism like his father, a senior editor at Newsweek, and his mom, a former editor at The New York Times.
For sure, he didn’t imagine a role as the rising garbage magnate of Western Washington. But that’s pretty much what he is: His Seattle company, CleanScapes, recently signed with the city of Des Moines to serve as its municipal collector, adding to a portfolio that includes Shoreline and half of Seattle. And he’ll have pitched pitch CleanScapes to Issaquah, Tukwila, North Bend and Snoqualmie by the end of the year.
Martin, 44, doesn’t attribute his success to any burning entrepreneurial desire that lay hidden while he studied political science at Vassar. His venture into capitalism, he explains, was closer to a shrug than a leap. “It was more a factor of I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons not to,” he says.
At the time he started his business in 1997, he was single and childless. He has since married, produced boy and girl twins and moved to Roslyn.
“If it didn’t work, I could always get another job,” Martin says. “It was more the absence of restrictions. You’re sort of young, and it’s like, ‘I can do anything.’”
CleanScapes has grown to a $48 million-a-year operation with more than 250 employees. It has horned in on turf increasingly controlled by such industry giants as Waste Management Inc. and Republic Services Inc. (parent of Allied Waste).
CleanScapes shares the duty of Seattle collections with Waste Management, having displaced Allied, which lost out in the 2008 round of bidding for the city contract. A Republic Services spokeswoman says her company doesn’t see that outcome as part of a trend, noting that Republic recently landed municipal collection contracts for Kent and Monroe.
Seattle’s deal with CleanScapes runs for eight years at $35 million a year, with a city option to extend it up to 12 years, says Hans Van Dusen, contracts manager at Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). Price accounted for 40 percent of the bid scoring, Van Dusen says; the rest was based on customer outreach, company background and the plans by both CleanScapes and Waste Management to power their trucks with greener, quieter-running, compressed natural gas. CleanScapes overcame its inexperience by hiring seasoned pros to manage the collections, Van Dusen adds.
SPU divides the city into exclusive service areas for residential garbage collection, which includes household and yard waste as well as recycling of paper, glass and plastic. Businesses can utilize the services up to any volume limits set by the city; for any excess, they can contract with any collector.
CleanScapes competes for that commercial trade, but its primary focus is on municipal contracts, Martin says. The company also deals in a third line of business, which is where it all began: sprucing up the exteriors of shops and stores by sweeping sidewalks, pressure-washing pavement, scrubbing graffiti and corralling litter.
Martin moved to Seattle after college to train as a rower. He found a job in the mailroom at a downtown advertising agency, worked his way up to account planner and bought a condo one floor above an alley in Pioneer Square.
“The alley was filled with dumpsters that often overflowed and were the scene of a fair amount of inappropriate behavior,” Martin says. “Drug transactions, sex for drugs, going to the bathroom …”
In his neighborhood association, Martin learned he wasn’t the only one dismayed by the alleys in Pioneer Square. He proposed setting up a for-hire exterior cleanup service. In response to a direct-mail pitch, 30 percent of the neighborhood’s property owners signed up.
The next step would be to eliminate dumpsters and replace them with bags for pickup—something Martin knew was common practice in other cities in the United States and Europe.
“There was a loophole,” Martin says. “We could act as a janitorial company and use these color-coded garbage bags and take those bags to a dumpster serviced by Allied Waste.” He contracted with Allied just as any other business would, in this case for a large consolidation dumpster under the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Martin sold his garbage bag idea, too, to area businesses such as the Hole in the Wall BBQ on James Street.
“It’s worked out just fine,” Hole in the Wall co-owner Jim Alongi says, noting that costs came out roughly equal to what dumpster expenses would have been.
“The problem with the dumpsters and the alleys in Pioneer Square is that they became hiding spots for individuals who needed to relieve themselves or to sell drugs,” Alongi says. “You get a clear alley and you have none of those hidey-hole places.”
CleanScapes’ dumpsterless approach proved so appealing that SPU specified the service for public areas downtown and in some other neighborhoods in its 2008 contracts, Van Dusen says.
CleanScapes has expanded to Portland, where it hals garbage and cleans up city parking garages, and to San Francisco, where it spiffs up exteriors in a business improvement district. For the future, Martin hopes to reach out in other ways.
“I’m a big proponent of waste to energy,” he says. It doesn’t make sense, he notes, to see the potential energy from incinerating garbage buried instead in costly landfills.
“We’d rather deploy our capital into systems that recover a lot more of the recyclables from garbage and then utilize the BTUs from what’s left,” Martin explains. “We can look at alternative technologies.”