Jacksonville’s favorite garbage man steps down
By Julie Gerke
A quiet retirement in mid-May has left Jacksonville without a longtime local link to the city’s refuse hauling history.
Joe “Joey” Buster was the second generation of Busters involved in trash hauling, a legacy started in 1962 when his dad, Joseph L. Buster, became one of more than a dozen local haulers whose trucks carried the names of Coats, Whittaker, Brown, Angelo and Wright, among others.
The younger Buster, 60, most recently was local site manager for GFL Environmental, the city’s contracted hauling service and the fourth-largest waste hauling company in North America.
GFL purchased Peoria-based Area Disposal Co. in October 2021; Area had purchased Joseph L. Buster Sanitation Service, along with a couple other local haulers, beginning in 1997, and Buster family members continued working in various roles for that family-owned company.
Joey Buster and sister Patty Buster Fellers started learning the business as kids, living the long hours and hard work of their now-deceased parents, Joe and Mary, who rolled out that first truck a year before Joey was born.
Over the years, Joe Buster built a good-sized business, growing to about a dozen trucks, a transfer station and landfills, but he “could see the times changing,” his son said, and sold to Area, part of a five-company hauling concern owned by the Royal Coulter family of Peoria.
Joe Buster worked another year before retiring, splitting his time between the city’s recycling facility he’d helped build and a family farm south of town; he died in 2005. Joey Buster stayed on with Area along with sister Patty, who worked in the office until 2020 before leaving to take care of their mom, who died in 2022.
“I enjoyed [the work], so I stayed,” Buster said. “I did live it and breathe it when I was younger.”
With the Area purchase, Buster’s role changed to management: “[It] was a different aspect of the industry I wasn’t used to. It was a good company. The Coulters were good to their employees. … I loved working for them and for Dad.”
A lot of that family feel continued with Area, Buster said. His dad had lent the Buster name to everything from a homecoming float to a stock car, and if Joey Buster saw an opportunity for Area to do something similar, all he had to do was make a call to Peoria.
Matt Coulter of Peoria, of the Area founding family, is now regional vice president for GFL Environmental. He is a “one in a million” guy,” Buster said. “He remembers everything [about his employees]. He’s a genuinely good person. … He’s like his dad. I have a lot of respect for Royal.”
As with many industries, waste hauling became a corporate business, with trucks costing close to $300,000 for a basic version and another hundred grand for more automated versions. The companies’ bulk buying power also meant better deals for tires, fuel, landfill and recycling options.
“It’s hard to compete with that,” Buster said. “But it’s the way of the world.”
Matt Coulter agreed, using his great-grandparents’ family grocery store as an example. In the early decades of the 1900s, the store was one of many family-owned groceries in Peoria. However, the Depression hit small businesses hard, and the store closed when larger, chain stores found it easier to fill customers’ needs with cheaper prices and larger buying power.
Buster represents “that fabric of a family business you’ll never have back,” Coulter said. “Joey’s father taught him that you put the customer first. That’s what they did. They went above and beyond. … Losing someone like Joey, who always put the customer first … is a big loss. He’s gonna be missed for a long time. We have a great staff; Joey trained them. We’re very lucky in Jacksonville, in that market, because we have a very seasoned staff.”
Indeed, four of the staff (Rona West, Cameron Turner, Dave Kesinger and Rich Hayes) started their employment with Buster Sanitation, continued with Area, and remain with GFL today. Joey Buster also lauded Joe Brant, another longtime Buster employee, who “would do anything for my dad. If he’d asked him, he would’ve stood on his head on the downtown square.”
His uncle, LeRoy Buster, who for years worked with Joe Buster, was a favorite work partner for his nephew. “We’d be laughing and laughing and he’d say ‘shut up’ and it’d be hot and we’re delirious at the end of the day,” Joey Buster recalled. “I used to love working with that guy. … We’d get to laughing so hard and I’d go home tired and my stomach hurt from laughing so hard.”
In those days, homeowners could burn trash in backyard firepits or load up a paper grocery sack full of trash and put it into a steel can with a lid behind a house or in a garage. Haulers would pull or carry those cans out to the truck, manually lifting them to dump the contents into the truck’s maw before taking the cans back to the homeowner’s preferred location.
For many years, the independent haulers worked seven-day weeks, although Sundays generally were limited to pickups at larger businesses. Days started at 5:30 a.m. and lasted until a route was complete. If something kept a driver from completing a route, coworkers jumped in to help.
“We loved what we did and the kind of business it was,” Buster said. “Even the employees loved it. … Those guys are friends forever.”
So when Buster decided retirement was his next move, he not only had to consider ending more than 60 years’ of Buster hauling history, but also leaving coworkers and friends. When he asked one coworker about the possibility of taking over, he was met with a grin and a firm no: “I see you pulling your hair out,” the friend told Buster. “I wanna keep mine.”
Jacksonville City Clerk Skip Bradshaw was an alderman when Joe Buster sold to Area, and remembers the elder Buster’s work on the city’s recycling program and the hauling business in general. “To see Joey step into those shoes, it was kind of an end of an era. … The Coulters were still a family business and Joey was a good fit. I hate to see him go.”
For now, Buster is acclimating to retirement and looking forward to continued time at the family farm, like his dad. His wife, Debra, is retired from Jacksonville School District 117; together, they have five kids and nine grandchildren.
“I put blood, sweat and tears into this thing,” he said. “But once my mind was made up, I couldn’t go back.”’