Every day, Joe Eori receives calls from about 10 potential customers who would like his Rostraver company, Big's Sanitation, to add their homes or businesses to its garbage collection routes.
He could handle the work. With about 30 employees using more than 20 trucks to gather refuse from 22,000 stops in the region, he is always looking for more clients. But Mr. Eori must turn away several potential customers each week.
The problem, according to Mr. Eori, is that an increasing number of townships bid out their waste management. Companies compete for the work by offering their lowest prices -- which, in the townships' eyes, creates a win-win situation by guaranteeing business for the companies and affordable prices for residents.
But companies like Big's Sanitation aren't big enough to compete with the industry's major players, so they end up excluded from competition in various districts throughout the state, including towns like Monessen, which is right next to Mr. Eori's office.
Mr. Eori has tried to collect trash for companies in municipalities with similar contracts, only to discover that his presence violated local policy. "I could increase the size of my business by 45 percent and I could hire more employees from those areas," he said. "These municipalities have got to stop."
Ruth Cialone, who owns Cialone's Autocare Center in Donora, said she tried to hire Big's Sanitation to collect garbage for her business because she did not want to work with her borough's contracted waste management provider.
Big's Sanitation could do the same job for a monthly rate of approximately $95 -- half as much as the contracted provider, she said.
"I'm allowed to choose my cable service and my phone service, so why can't I choose my garbage carrier?" Ms. Cialone said. "[The borough] isn't really negotiating in my best interest if the price is that much higher."
The state's small garbage collectors frequently struggle to remain competitive in the face of local government regulations, said Jason Leck, treasurer of the Pennsylvania Independent Waste Haulers Association, which has about 90 members. Richard Bapst, vice president of the association, said the waste management market sometimes even borders on oligopoly.
"It's a very prevalent problem," Mr. Leck said. "What it does is eliminate competition for publicly traded companies or for larger companies, and it forces the smaller companies to not compete or to go out of business."
But municipal managers and solicitors say the garbage disposal contracts are a boon to their constituents.
Susan Trout, city administrator for Greensburg, said her town contracts with a single garbage collector, the multibillion-dollar company Waste Management Inc., primarily to avoid the "chaos" of multiple companies sending trucks to the town throughout the week.
She said contracting a company to collect garbage once a week helps her office maintain greater control over the disposal process and effectively address problems.
Waste Management operates throughout the country and in Canada with more than 32,000 vehicles and employs more than 40,000 people. In Pennsylvania alone, the company employs 2,400 individuals.
In Irwin, borough manager Mary Benko said her municipality negotiates contracts with waste management companies to ensure fair, equal garbage collection services for all residents and businesses.
"We are contracting out with one company, so we get very good service and very good rates for everyone," she said.
Although Mr. Leck said municipalities might be motivated to pursue garbage disposal contracts in order to generate revenue, Ms. Trout said Greensburg only gains approximately $70,000 from its contract with Waste Management. The sum represents less than 1 percent of the town's overall revenue of about $10 million.
Mr. Eori has considered suing some municipalities in which he has struggled to do business, but he said he was deterred by legal fees.
Tim Maatta, the Monessen attorney whom Mr. Eori considered retaining, said Mr. Eori could have taken the municipalities to court on the grounds that they preclude his business from competing within their markets. "State law says in its chapters that there's certain things you can prohibit and certain things you can regulate ... Telling a man like Joe Eori that he can't come in, that's prohibition," Mr. Maatta said.
Ultimately, the legal implications of Mr. Eori's inability to compete for a waste management contract are difficult to parse, since no municipality has expressly forbidden him from bidding.
Chris Mazullo, a lawyer based outside of Philadelphia who serves as the waste haulers association's general counsel, said he has often represented the association and other independent garbage collectors in informing municipalities of the benefits and drawbacks behind single-company contracts.
Persuading a town to avoid adopting a bid process has proven an acceptable approach for Mr. Mazullo, but suing towns that already have compliant contracts in place would not have a strong basis in antitrust law, he said. Municipalities can legally bid out their waste management, and so long as independent companies are not categorically prohibited from vying for the contracts, the chances of any lawsuits succeeding remain slim.
Mr. Eori continues to look for other opportunities to grow his business.
He used the Small Business Administration's loan program to secure funding to add three new garbage trucks to his fleet, and he has been finding business in the municipalities, like Rostraver or the city of Pittsburgh, that do not control garbage collection within their borders.
Meanwhile Mr. Bapst, vice president of the waste haulers association, had one bit of advice for garbage collectors hoping to stay afloat within Pennsylvania's mosaic of municipalities and garbage policies: Avoid starting a new business near the more restrictive towns.
"It really comes down to how you structure your business and where you locate," Mr. Bapst said.
Daniel Sisgoreo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1410 or on Twitter @danielsisgoreo.