Largest family-owned recycler in the state

Lautenbach brothers helm largest family-owned recycler in state

Matt Benoit

Every week in cul-de-sacs and driveways across Whatcom County, recycling bins and garbage containers sit waiting to be picked up.

But do you know what happens once a curbside recycling company takes that reusable refuse off your hands? In many cases, it winds up with Lautenbach Recycling.

Since its humble beginnings in 1991, the family-owned recycling business has provided sustainable solutions for commercial and industrial clients both public and private, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Oregon and across western Washington.

Running lean

The company now boasts about 110 employees and multiple transfer stations throughout Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties, but its making a wide footprint in Pacific Northwest recycling was by no means easy.

Founder Troy Lautenbach started the company at age 24, fresh out of college and unable to find a good job. He went into the recycling business for himself partly at the suggestion of his uncles, longtime Whatcom County dairy farmers Darryl and Ed Vander Haak.

Lautenbach had worked for the two — who were also involved with industrial waste recycling and sustainable practices — during college, gaining initial industry knowledge and experience.

“They’re definitely our mentors,” said Troy of his uncles.

The two were also responsible for installing the state’s first anaerobic digester, which uses bacteria to decompose manure and its byproduct methane.

When Troy first hung out his recycling shingle in 1991 with a truck and trailer borrowed from his uncles, it was the leanest of enterprises.

“I had nothing,” he said. “I had a college loan and an ’82 Ford Courier.”

Those early years stayed lean mostly out of necessity, and Lautenbach Recycling focused almost entirely on construction-based recycling — taking drywall and similar items and eventually turning it into bedding for dairy cattle.

Diversified service

By 1999, the business was expanding, and Troy hired his brother Torrey
— younger by 4 1/2 years — to join him. While there have been periods of tough budgeting, such as during the 2008 recession, both brothers are proud of the large company they’ve built today.

That company now includes a diversified array of services, including demolition, metal and commercial recycling, as well as food depackaging, storage containers, composting and more. 

“We are in a good space,” said Torrey of the company’s current status. “There’s a lot of energy around sustainability,
climate change, ways to keep things out of landfills, and finding ways to do things more efficiently, and [to] save the environment while we’re doing it.”

Lautenbach Recycling is headquartered in Mount Vernon, directly next to Skagit County’s recycling and transfer station. Its organic waste and composting service, Skagit Soils Inc, is also located in Mount Vernon.

The company also has facilities in Ferndale — including a yard with about 50 trucks — Bellingham and San Juan Island. About two years ago, the company bought NW Recycling and moved it out of Bellingham’s Old Town neighborhood, where extensive redevelopment is currently taking place.

Lautenbach Recycling has contracts with the major residential recycling pickup companies in Whatcom County, including Sanitary Service Company and Nooksack Valley Disposal. For SSC, Lautenbach Recycling processes only some recyclables, helping transport the remainder to a larger processor.

Recently, the company purchased a waste depackaging machine to complement the composting operation. The state-of-the-art machine — the first to be used north of California — can separate large amounts of food waste from packaging, eliminating the need to do so by hand.

“This machine methodically separates the organics from the packaging, so we recycle as much packaging as we can,” Torrey said.

Recycling is real

Running a recycling business in 2024 carries with it, like any business,
many challenges. 

That includes keeping up with automation options, of which there are substantially more than 10 or 20 years ago. Robotic and optical sorting stations in curbside recycling operations have greatly increased efficiency and reduced labor costs in some markets, Torrey said.

An optical sorter, he adds, can extract much smaller pieces of recyclable wood from an object, in a timelier fashion, than a human being. However, Lautenbach Recycling currently has neither feature and continues to rely on finding quality people who fit the company’s culture and mission of responsible sustainability.

Staying competitive in the recycling marketplace, Torrey said, is mainly based on keeping prices close to
whatever landfills are charging.
Although recycling can sometimes cost more than simply throwing debris in a landfill, Troy said that living in a more socially and environmentally conscious age has been a big boost to the industry as a whole.

Another challenge is public perception. 

Often, the brothers hear people say that recycling either isn’t actually occurring once refuse leaves their house or that it helps less than people think. The Lautenbachs see things differently.

“That’s not true for us,” Troy said. “Our cardboard and our paper, our plastics and aluminum and tin — we know exactly where all of that’s going. And we’re not just shipping it overseas, we’re keeping it domestically.”

Torrey reiterates this.

“We’re not just taking things in and sending them to the landfill,” he said. “We’re very proud of the fact that we go the extra mile to ensure that we’re doing the right thing.”

Not only is recycling real, but for Troy, it also led to true love. Lautenbach met his wife, Erika, at an industry conference when she was public relations manager for a large garbage and recycling company. They went on their first date just over a month later and have now been married for seven years.

Erika serves as the Whatcom County Health and Community Services director.

Trust and trash

Much of the company’s success, the brothers say, can also be traced to the transparency and trustworthiness the company has established with both customers and employees. 

That’s especially important in an industry like recycling, which is
heavily regulated. 

“Our business has grown through our partnerships,”  Torrey said. “As they grow, we grow, because we’re very transparent and we’re proud in the fact that we take care of people. We like to think that when our customers deal with us, they’re going to get taken care of, and in a transparent and sustainable way.”

The brothers also believe their company is a great place to work.

“We enjoy each other,” Troy said. “We call each other a family. We live by that. We help each other out.”

The local recycling community is quite small, Torrey adds, and the success of those partnerships has allowed each entity to stay in its own lane, for the most part. But it also allows for collaboration and conversation — something that occurred with SSC’s recent phase-in of one-bin residential recycling.

There were multiple reasons for the switch, the brothers said. With a three-bin system, recycling trucks actually make a larger carbon footprint due to the limit of sorted refuse they can haul. The labor element of having handlers sort material is also a concern.

While single-stream recycling is obviously easier for consumers, since they don’t have to sort recycling, Torrey said the downside is the potential increase of contaminated recycle materials.

This is where the consumer — and the Lautenbachs’ professional recycling advice — comes in. 

“Don’t be a hopeful recycler,” Torrey said. “Be a knowledgeable recycler.”

Troy said the hopeful recycler engages in what industry insiders like to call “wish cycling,” which is when a consumer is unsure whether a particular item should be recycled and chooses to recycle it anyway. When that consumer is wrong, it creates more problems for companies like theirs.

SSC, the brothers say, have done a good job educating people on what can and cannot be recycled. Just the same, they offer helpful reminders: Tin, aluminum and glass cans are all fine, as are cardboard and dry paper. 

Paper bags and certain plastic containers are okay, but plastic bags are a no go, as they will often become wrapped in screens, gumming up sorting equipment. These include large garbage bags —
especially the black, nontransparent ones.

Removing food and liquid waste from recycled materials is also essential, the brothers say. Troy said that liquids can contaminate materials and make it more difficult to recycle the fibers of a given recyclable material.

Whenever someone recycles something that is contaminated or actually unrecyclable, it goes where it ultimately would have gone if thrown away: the landfill.

Regardless of whether you’re putting out your weekly household refuse or cleaning up a construction site,
Torrey said the main takeaway is ultimately the same: 

“Do what you can. Be educated to ensure that we’re doing the absolute best we can to have a good recycle stream.”