Abe’s Trash Service launched back in 1955 during a Nebraska dry spell that caused the corn to die in the field. With his crops failing, Omaha farmer Abe Christensen desperately needed an income. “It was very dry and he was out of money,” remembers Abe’s son and current owner John Christensen. “That’s why he started picking up trash.”
Armed with little more than a cattle truck and the determination to provide for his wife and three children, Abe began going door to door, asking if he could empty people’s trash. At first he wasn’t even sure what to charge, offering to provide the service for whatever customers wanted to pay.
At that time, 95 percent of the local population burned their own trash, often producing heavy smoke that hung over Omaha neighborhoods. Abe hauled trash to his farm, where he burned it in a below-ground silo, sparing his customers the smoke. The difference in local air quality was immediately tangible and demand for his service grew quickly. Abe set up a fee schedule, charging just $1.00 for monthly service and $2.00 for weekly service and collected 50-gallon drums from local factories for his customers to use. To help get the company off the ground, Abe’s wife, Arlene, worked with him to unload trash. Their son, John, came home from college every weekend to drive routes, until he eventually decided to make trash collection his fulltime focus.
Fast-forward nearly seventy years and Abe’s humble startup has grown to become one of the biggest recyclers in Nebraska. Still family-owned and operated, the company will pass from John Christensen to his four children when he retires in the near future. “They all went to college and graduated and they all came back to work for me,” Christensen says. Now his children and their spouses all run the company together, successfully taking Abe’s Trash Service into the third generation. “They take perfect care of the business.”
Indeed, the close-knit family atmosphere is foundational to the company culture. “It’s absolutely perfect working with family members every day,” Christensen says. “I see my kids every day. I see my son-in-law and my daughters-in-law every day. My grandkids I see three or four times a week because it’s all family-owned. Being a family business [is] just absolutely positive.”
The family’s collective commitment has been key to the company’s long-term success. “I think the management team is very important,” Christensen says. “Me and my three sons—I have three sons and a daughter—we actually go out and work on the trucks and change tires and even me, at seventy years old, I still go out and drive a roll off truck quite often, at least three or four days a week. I’ll go do a stop here or a stop there.”
In addition to ensuring that the business is operating smoothly, this hands-on-approach is great for morale. “The people that work for you, they like being out with the boss and [that] the boss does the same thing they do.” In fact, the company culture is so positive and morale so high that the first employee Christensen ever hired stayed with the company all the way through to retirement—then returned after four months. “He’s back working full time for us.”
The commitment to day-to-day operations certainly makes the Christensen family stand out. “Most people in my position don’t drive a truck or go work in their shop,” Christensen points out. But the founder’s can-do attitude still runs strong all the way through to the third generation of Christensens. “My three boys, we all do everything—whatever needs to be done.”
Understandably, the company’s greatest challenge came with the pandemic. “Probably, in all these years I picked up trash, it was the worst time,” Christensen says. “Because all the smaller restaurants, all the small shops, all the small bars, all the commercial accounts, unless they were in a big shopping mall or something, they just discontinued service because they had to close their doors… People were calling up and just quitting. And then we told them, ‘don’t quit. We’ll put you on vacation, because I hope everybody gets opened up sometime soon and I’d like to be your trash service again.’ It’s pretty amazing how many people discontinued services.”
Residential demand picked up, but only in volume, not in profit. “The residential tonnage went up because everybody was staying home all day,” Christensen recalls. This increased demand created additional strain on the business, particularly when COVID infections swept through the company despite the team’s precautions. “We tried being really careful with our company,” Christensen says. “We didn’t let the drivers in the office [and we] kept everybody separated, but we still got it. There were a couple of times we had five or six people out at a time because of COVID.”
Employees and Christensen family members who stayed well rallied together to get the job done each day. “Everybody just put in a lot more hours. My kids went out and did routes. I can honestly tell you that not one time were we a day late. We just stayed out and made sure everything got done.”
Certainly, the industry has transformed since the 1950s, when Abe Christensen first peddled his trash hauling services door to door. “There have been a lot of changes in trash hauling from when I started,” Christensen remembers. “When I started, I picked up trash and I dumped it in a field and I burned it, which is highly illegal now, and that’s what my dad did too.” Now sustainability is at the forefront of the company, particularly a commitment to divert waste from landfill.
For instance, Abe’s Trash Service recently signed an account with a large, national company whose trash had been going straight to landfill. “They switched over to us and we spread it all out on farm ground—our farm ground and neighboring farm ground—it’s probably about 60 to 70 tons every day.” There are a number of trace chemicals in the waste including lime, phosphate, potash, potassium, and zinc. “It’s good for the farm ground,” Christensen explains.
The material comes from green waste construction, a concept that strives to reuse or recycle as much construction material as possible rather than sending it to landfill. “All that wood is usually thrown into a dumpster and drywall and concrete and things like that as well,” Christensen explains. “The wood and the drywall, we grind that with our residential yard waste and commercial yard waste and compost it. And then we spread it out on farm ground. It makes excellent compost.”
In order to remain at the leading edge of the industry, the family works hard to keep up with the latest developments on everything from sustainability to new technology. “We keep up to date on all the new activities going on in recycling and trash hauling,” Christensen says. The team is already planning their annual trip to this year’s Solid Waste Convention, where they stay abreast of current trends and changing regulations. “You learn all the new things that are happening and see the new equipment out there,” Christensen says.
This willingness to embrace change—while holding fast to the work ethic that built the company—is sure to keep Abe’s Trash Service running successfully into the third generation and beyond.