The Refuse Reversal
The United Group’s quest to turn waste into opportunity
"Where others see the end of a structure’s life, we see a new landscape, safer roads, cleaner communities and a healthier planet.”
That’s the motto Dan and Nicki McAuliffe, Owners of The United Group, have held since they founded the company in 1995. To them, recycling is all about opportunity and adaptability—for people and services. As a beginning-to-end recycler, The United Group has shaped one of the region’s, and arguably the country’s, most comprehensive recycling operations one truck, one grinder and one person at a time. Based in Snohomish, Washington, it achieves a 90% recycle rate of construction debris—and they don’t own or need a landfill.
Dan confirms, “It’s all about continuously evaluating and rethinking potential uses for used materials. Where some see waste, we see reuse through innovative recycling methods. And we have a strong team working hard every day to deliver on this commitment.”
The United Group currently encompasses six separate divisions. The McAuliffes initially founded Topsoils, Inc. in 1995 to recycle topsoil, which they started with one crusher—a crusher that is still in use today. By 2002, the two renamed Topsoils, Inc. to United Recycling & Container to better encompass the comprehensive recycling capabilities that included wood and concrete.
Through that first decade of operation, the company gathered machines and tools to make the recycling process smoother. Much like mining, the commercial recycling process, particularly construction and demolition (C&D) debris, requires a range of durable grinders, crushers, screeners, loaders, excavators and scales that can handle construction materials of all sizes and types from concrete and brick to sheetrock.
Over time, their team has had to get creative to achieve its recycling goals.
Dan explains, “C&D debris can range from large doors and walls to asphalt shingles and wood products—so our machines have to be able to handle a variety of scope, scale and texture. At the time, there really wasn’t any equipment developed for the recycling process—so I borrowed equipment from the mining industry and adapted it to our needs.”
That willingness to adapt in both operations and capabilities opened the door for expansion. The United Recycling & Container operation served Snohomish County and surrounding areas, recycling foundations, drywall, wood products and industrial materials such as gypsum.
Then the McAuliffe’s got more creative, introducing the Clearview Nursery & Stone, founded in 2004, which provides natural stone products to homeowners, landscape contractors, builders and architects. In 2011, they formed United Metals for the recycling of aluminum, copper, brass, stainless steel and other metals largely for the auto and aerospace industry.
Finally, the increased demand for recycled services facilitated the opening of United Recycling Seattle in 2017 to recycle C&D debris in Seattle and King County, and United Recycling & Organics in 2018, a group focused on landscaping materials produced from recycled materials. These products include mulch, topsoil and hem/fir fines.
Thousands of tons of C&D debris is processed daily at The United Group’s recycling facilities, and United Metals plays an important role with its expertise in recycling the many different kinds of metals. “Each new division is a result of a new opportunity created from the existing recycling services,” says Dan. “Our team is incredibly innovative in finding ways to turn waste into opportunity.”
Recycled bark alternative is one example of a new opportunity. This material, recycled from C&D debris, combined with environmentally friendly, naturally occurring pigment dye (iron oxide for red and carbon for black) to create 100% recycled Clearview Red Mulch that lasts three times longer than traditional bark. “Local municipalities love this product because it is material that was taken from the community that is now recycled right back into it. It’s a closed loop.”
To further encourage the recycling of materials, The United Group also customizes containers and trucks to meet the needs of contractors. The company provides containers from 16-yard to 50-yard capacity, with varying transport options such as rail, steel and rubber wheels depending on the job site. “Standard containers don’t work on every job,” explains Dan. “Sometimes, these containers need to be light enough to lift onto a building or roll on a railroad track.”
Approximately 15% of all of The United Group’s jobs require custom containers. And while the processes put in place to recycle materials are important, it’s the people behind the machines that the McAuliffes believe make the company successful.
No Restrictions, Only Possibilities
About 300 people currently work for The United Group and many have worked for the McAuliffes for more than a decade in part because of benefits like 401(k) matching and a comprehensive health care plan, but more because of the family-like environment that opens the door for new opportunities.
Nicki says, “Employee retention has always been a big focus for us. We take care to find people who understand our services and business direction and want to be part of our growth. In turn, our responsibility is to give them an opportunity to move up within the company.”
As an example, Dan became a DOT-certified CDL instructor about a decade ago as a way to help employees expand skills. “A CDL license is a great way for someone who takes a job as a sorter, for instance, to learn a new skill such as driving a truck. As an instructor, I can provide the necessary classroom education and driving hours so they can pass the skills and knowledge tests.”
That emphasis on people has helped the company maintain a very high employee retention.
Curt Fidell is representative of that loyalty. He was the first driver hired for United Recycling & Container and recently retired after 18 years. He says that he accepted the job as a driver originally because it was near his home and the company was small (just four people). Curt says, “I’ll never forget watching my truck being built at Kenworth in Renton and actually being the first to crank it over before it was even finished.” Along the way, he learned how to operate, maintain and repair heavy equipment used for recycling.
Similarly, Chris Shepherd started as a sorter on the line three years ago, and is now the Yard Supervisor at United Recycling Seattle. His favorite part about The United Group is that they “gave [me] an opportunity when most wouldn’t.”
General Manager of United Recycling & Container, Brian Moody, has been with the company for more than 15 years, and the McAuliffes son, Marcus, who has literally grown up in the business, is a Lead Installer and CDL driver for the company’s United Construction division, which was started several years ago. This division focuses on building car lifts and car parking stalls for large high-rise buildings.
“We’re careful not to let our people get pigeonholed into one job or task,” adds Nicki. “We feel that new opportunities energize minds, creating a platform for new ideas, which is a benefit for everyone.”
Another integral part of the company is its safety policies. Along with regular safety meetings for operators, laborers and drivers, the McAuliffes have a safety committee composed of various employees to address specific issues related to recycling operations.
“We take a holistic approach to recycling with a commitment to clean materials that add value in order to continually create new opportunities for our employees, communities and our planet.” Dan McAuliffe, President, The United Group
The Climate Commitment
From small projects to entertainment venues and business campuses, The United Group has helped improve recycling throughout the state.
Dan says the recycle process is not well understood in the industry, so he and his team spend considerable time on education. He explains, “Every job has it’s own unique requirements—whether its fast track, limited space, high volume or all of the above. We take the time to listen and understand contractor requirements, which has led to some great long-term relationships. We’re a service, so it’s important to fit with their project limits.” That relationship focus has come in particularly handy with the Climate Pledge Arena redevelopment project. When complete, the arena will be the first net zero certified arena in the world—and The United Group has been on site since 2019 assisting with the demolition.
“Our holistic approach to recycling made us the best choice for this job that has a strong emphasis on sustainability,” says Dan. “Per the contract, all of the wood, steel and concrete from the demolition had to be either reused in construction of the new arena or recycled.”
Just recently, The United Group hauled away the last of the 72 temporary steel columns that held up the roof.
Another project that The United Group supported is the Washington State Department of Transportation’s SR 520 Floating Bridge Replacement Project. State Route 520 is one of two major east-west roadways crossing Lake Washington within King County and the Seattle metropolitan area. Key in the project was to reduce, reuse and recycle construction materials. For instance, all of the old floating bridge concrete pontoons were reused in other regions as wharfs, piers or other marine structures. The company recycled steel and mixed construction debris into parts and pieces for reuse that have been reused from California to Canada.
“We’re always open to finding a niche,” says Dan.
With increased focus on sustainability and climate change, The United Group’s expertise in all things recycling and its teamwork approach have sparked considerable demand. In response, the McAuliffes are expanding their recycling facility in Snohomish from 40 to 100 acres.
Dan concludes, “Our quest to transform waste into the cleanest, highest quality products is relentless. We take a holistic approach to recycling with a commitment to clean materials that add value in order to continually create new opportunities for our employees, communities and our planet.”