“The impetus for this business was the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act which gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) federal authority to control the generation, transportation, treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous waste. The intent was to protect human health and the environment from contamination by hazardous materials at a time when most wastes were being disposed of in unlined landfills. By about 1980, an entire industry had emerged to provide services to manage hazardous waste in compliance with this legislation. Under a different corporate ownership, Onyx Environmental Services was there from the start,” recounts Jim Dykhuis, director of marketing. “Today, the proper disposal of hazardous waste is seen as an accepted cost of doing business, and like many other accepted costs, our customers are used to outsourcing the function to someone with the specialized expertise. We are perhaps a bit unique in that our expertise encompasses not only the technical knowledge we’ve accumulated from being one of the first hazardous waste management businesses at the start of the industry, but also, unlike many of our competitors, we have the stability of being one of the few companies that are still in business from that time.”
Onyx Environmental Services is headquartered in Lombard, Ill. with 1,400 employees, about half of which are hourly employees with the rest comprising scientists and managers, working across 43 facilities and 10 geographic branches located throughout the geographic U.S. Of these, 13 are Treatment Storage Disposal Facilities (TSDF) that incinerate, recycle or otherwise render hazardous materials inert in accordance with federal guidelines. The remaining facilities serve as holding centers for materials in transit to the appropriate TSDF and serve as home base for service teams engaged in service work at customer locations. There are also two sister Onyx companies that provide similar environmental services for customer locations in Canada and Mexico.
The largest customer segment is made up of waste brokers, other waste service companies, consultants and engineering firms, followed by pharmaceutical and biotech, chemical processing, high-tech electronics, state governments (which usually involves household management waste and consumer products) colleges and universities, R&D labs, aerospace, power generation and petroleum refineries.
Services provided are basically of two types: fixed contracts to remove and appropriately treat, dispose or recycle hazardous materials from customer sites to an Onyx TSDF and/or on-site consultative services that aid end-users in managing their hazardous waste.
Onyx Environmental is one of four decentralized units of Onyx North America, which provides a full spectrum of collection and treatment processes, including the management of hazardous and solid wastes, industrial maintenance and cleaning services, and innovative waste-to-energy solutions. Onyx North America’s own parent company, Veolia Environment, is a water, waste management, energy services and transportation company headquartered in France with worldwide operations. “As part of larger corporate entities that offer a range of complementary offerings, we at Onyx Environmental Services have the unique capability to offer clients a one-stop-shop for turnkey environmental solutions on a global scale,” Dykhuis notes.
In terms of the North American market, Dykhuis points to four elements that differentiate Onyx Environmental Services from its competition:
• culture of compliance, with the spirit and letter of environmental regulations governing our operations
• financial strength, which allows the company to offer customers meaningful contractual indemnification
• service excellence second to none
• cost-effective solutions that seek to reduce the customer’s waste generation and overall program costs.
Obeying the law
“This business is a little unusual in that the need for our services is created by the government,” Dykhuis explains. “We’re not trying to stimulate demand or create new products. Business and government entities are mandated by law to recycle or dispose of waste in certain ways and they are ultimately responsible to ensure complete compliance to the full extent of the spirit and letter of the law. We not only have the necessary compliance systems, but the best-developed systems supported by the most experienced and knowledgeable professionals in the industry to virtually eliminate the risk of non-compliance for our customers.”
Having “been there and done that” not only enables Onyx Environmental Services to provide clients with the benefit of their experience, but also assures them of a continuing relationship with a financially stable company. “I think we’re the only company that was at the start of the industry some 30 years ago that is still in business today,” Dykhuis says. “Many of our competitors from that time have either gone bankrupt, are out of business, or are operating under bankruptcy reorganization. Because we’ve not only stayed viable in a difficult industry, but have prospered, we have the capital available to continually improve our systems, attract high quality people and effectively service our customers, all of which leads back to ensuring customer compliance and eliminating risk.”
An equally essential ingredient is service. “We just did a case study on a customer who, as part of the bid process, tested each potential provider for two, three-month terms. First up was our competitor, then Onyx. At the end of the second three-month term the customer immediately awarded the business to Onyx because our service was far superior,” says Dykhuis. “One way we provide excellent service is through the quality of our IT systems. We have the best field computer system in the industry that our technicians use for data collection and packing of chemicals. The system is very flexible, capturing any chemical configuration and accessing over 20,000 different approvals for nearly 400 TSDF’s and easily incorporating these into standard EPA reporting formats. In addition, we can easily import customer-generated data into our system without a lot of programming. The system has a full range of menu options to fit almost any customer contingency.”
Supporting the Customer
Another key element to customer service is the company’s unique customer support structure. “Every customer is assigned a dedicated project manager, who is in turn supported by technical service and sales staff,” Dykhuis explains. “The relationship among all these should look like a tetrahedron, with the customer at the top, and the project manager, TSR and sales person at each corner, all supporting the customer’s needs with their technical expertise and Onyx services.” He adds, “Our customers really appreciate the team model, not only with how the team communicates with the customer, but how well we communicate with each other. It’s just the most efficient way to move information and extract what you need to know when you need to know it.”
Of course, price is always an issue; in fact it’s in the top six concerns of our customers. Dykhuis emphasizes that “we always strive to offer competitive pricing. At the same time, due to the long-term liabilities involved, this is not the sort of business you can do cheaply. But because our customers generally are highly regulated, highly technical and detail-oriented, they understand that compliance with the many laws and regulations has an associated cost. And for all the reasons just discussed, Onyx is in the best position to offer the most affordable solutions to mandatory requirements.”
Environmental services in general and hazardous waste disposal in particular are mature industries. Dykhuis characterizes any future growth as organic. “We’ve done some small acquisitions over the years and could do some if, appropriate, in the future, but the industry as a whole has gone through considerable consolidation in the last three to five years. For now we’re doing what we can to reduce internal operating costs, service our existing customers and gain some new ones along the way. So while we’re not expecting anything dramatic, we are projecting a solid 5 to 10 percent annual growth rate for the immediate future.”
He notes that two big issues Onyx is addressing are related to improving air quality and more effective recycling. “For materials that we can dispose of through incineration, we’ve complied with the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) regulations. The result is we are performing at a more steady state burning operation. Before MACT when the feed rate fluctuated that tended to create more CO2 and temperature spikes, and sometimes, particulate matter. So by managing the incineration process more efficiently through improved waste feed preparation and air pollution control equipment, we can reduce air pollutants.”
Recycling of hazardous wastes for customers is also growing more popular. Solvent recovery, for example, can recycle as much as 99 percent of the original chemical from the waste stream for reuse. Onyx is the leading firm recycling hazardous waste and industrial byproducts. For example, one division is the largest firm recycling fluorescent lamps in the U.S. This same division recycles a wide variety of e-waste from batteries and computers to power distribution equipment and computer monitors. Onyx also pioneered the use of hazardous waste corrosive liquids as a raw material, legally bypassing regulations, in recovering tin from brass substrate. Profitability is linked to how much industry throws away, and the more industry throws away is linked to the additional products being manufactured. Consequently, one good indicator of how well the economy is doing is how much waste Onyx Environmental Services is disposing of. “Our business cycle is about six months behind that of our customers. Our indications are that we’re in a fairly strong economy now that began to really generate steam about the middle of last year,” Dykhuis says.
This means that even during these better economic days, not many companies have money to waste, but they do have more waste that Onyx Environmental Systems can profitably turn into money while serving its customers and protecting the environment – just what the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act was designed to accomplish.