There’s nothing simple about solid waste, and there’s very little that is simple about transforming solid waste collection in communities like Orange County, Fla. When looking to modernize collection systems, many governments have turned to automation, often in the name of reducing injuries to workers and cutting down the number of collection vehicles on the roads.
In Orange County, home to the city of Orlando and several of Disney’s famous parks, there are also 208,000 single-family homes setting out solid waste, recycling and yard waste.
When the county powers that be decided to update collection to include CNG trucks and an automated system, they put a call out for bids and set out to inform residents around the county about the new collection and the changes it would bring.
After bidding out collection three separate ways, the Orange County Board of Commissioners chose to go with one-one-one collection—one pickup per week for recycling, garbage and yard waste. The county board divided the region into five collection zones allowing for some haulers to service up to two zones. To keep collection competitive and so not to lean so heavily on one hauler, says Jim Becker Orange County solid waste manager, the county always has contracted with multiple haulers for waste collection.
In this case, three haulers: Waste Pro, Advanced Waste Disposal and the Spanish company Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas Inc. (FFC) split the zones servicing approximately 40,000 single family residences in each zone. Though the agreement allowed 18 months for haulers to automate their collection vehicles, Becker says most have already made the changes just a short time into the contract (except perhaps when collecting in alleyways and in rural areas).
When the new service officially went live Jan. 1, for the most part, it did go well, says Becker.
“After the first month, over 90 percent was picked up without a problem.”
Not bad for a new program, he says. But it was the other 10 percent that made the TV news and other local media, and those negative responses had a voice.
“It was a heck of a lot more press than expected,” he says.
Change was difficult for both residents and the haulers, and it is taking time for everyone to get it right, says Becker. The contractors have new routes to service. Residents went from two garbage pickups per week down to one, and from bags to 95-gallon carts that have to be put at the curb the proper way.
The biggest issue, says Becker, was thousands of complaint calls from residents where pickup of carts, or some whole routes, were late or skipped altogether. In some instances, the residents weren’t following setout guidelines, so the haulers weren’t picking up the trash. In other instances, the haulers were to blame, says Becker. Administrators worked with haulers to make changes. Though complaints fell, a lot of calls still came in each day, forcing the county to threaten fines for the haulers that weren’t meeting expectations.
By March, the county leveled a total of $26,000 worth of fines amongst the three haulers for missed collections. Becker says the county has always had the power to fine haulers when needed as it is clearly stated in each of the hauling contracts—even before automation.
“We don’t relish the idea,” he says, “but we do it when they’re not meeting the contract.”
Fines were leveled in four of the county’s five zones. Advanced Disposal was fined for missed pickups in one of its two zones, Becker says. The haulers do have an appeal process for the fines starting with the county’s contract administrator all the way up to the Director of Utilities, should it come to that. Already though, there are fewer complaints as the learning curve is met.
It’s possible the haulers can show they were not at fault or did meet contract obligations, as the trucks are equipped with GPS and radio frequency identification technology (RFID) that will allow them to show exactly what happened in each case. That will be up to each hauler to check the data and appeal their case, Becker says.
“But we’re hopefully getting down to the tail end, and over the next four to eight weeks I expect it to settle down into the system that it’s supposed to be,” he says.
Before moving to the new system, Becker spoke with other communities that had switched to automated service. Their advice was to get the word out any and every way they could to prepare residents for the change. The county, he says, held public meetings, sent mailers, used social media and the county website to reach customers, and passed out information along with the new carts, but even that didn’t prepare everyone.
“You really can’t do enough public education,” he says.
Becker now suggests that communities looking to automate their solid waste collection do their due diligence and on top of that, also reach out to the media and let them know that change is coming and that it’s going to be a transition for everyone.
Becker told county officials it would be at least 90 days before things settle into place once the new service had started. In hindsight, he says, he should have brought that to the media as well.
“And my advice is, get the word out,” he says.