Eureka! - the phase used by thousands of Californians striking gold more than a century ago. Today, some California communities feel like they have struck gold, too, when they switched from manual to semi- or fully automated collection.
And why not? Routes are condensed and seemingly placed on fast-forward. On-the-job injuries and the resulting claims are down. Customers are praising the reliable service.
But automation is not a magic operational genie that grants every waste wish. It takes forethought and a thorough understanding of your unique operation and community to make this example of modernization pay off.
One California community, the city of Santa Cruz, understood the importance of this preparation prior to making a monumental change such as automating collections. Now, the city, which provides full refuse, recycling and landfill services to 11,000 households and 1,200 commercial customers, is reaping the benefits of its extensive efforts.
The first step was a semi-automated collection pilot project in March 1993, to determine the affect of eliminating lifting on workers' high injury rates. It also aimed to analyze the benefits, costs, risks and ultimately, the feasibility of a citywide expansion to semi-automated service.
Given the limited funding ($25,000), selecting the pilot project's neighborhoods was key, because only five percent of the households would receive the roll-out carts, which were purchased from Otto Industries, Charlotte, N.C.
The two areas selected were representative of the city's population patterns and urban layout, and spanned decades in age and infrastructure. One neighborhood was built early in the century with traditional narrow sidewalks and back alley refuse service. The other was a more modern track development, with well-defined cul-de-sacs, underground utilities and wide sidewalks.
Were the residents pleased with the new program? A survey of all participating households three months after the pilot began in September 1993, received an 87 percent response rate and showed a 94 percent approval rate of the new program.
The city seized this public and political support as an opportunity to improve the overall refuse collection system.
From Pilot to Permanent The city council approved a three-year, city-wide cart distribution plan, and charged the public works department to design a variable can rate, revise customer service policies and assess feasibility for automating refuse collection.
As cart distribution expanded throughout the city, workers' safety records began to improve. Only four years after completing the project in 1997, the safety record changed dramatically - from 626 lost workdays in 1993 to 29 in 1997.
Certainly, a safer work environment meant that employees could retire when they were ready to, rather than being forced by injuries into a transfer or retirement.
Faced with the likelihood of automation, management and the sanitation worker's union negotiated and reevaluated the incentive pay program, revised job descriptions and agreed on compensation - not an easy task.
Addressing workers' fears about lay-offs, job reassignments and training were a priority. After all, public demands for increased services cannot be provided without increasing the flexibility of the staff required to deliver those services.
As a result, reshaping drivers' job descriptions and reducing the number of job classifications ensured job security and mobility within the division, and permitted the drivers to gain the necessary training and experience in operating different vehicles and routes. Merging three job descriptions into a single, unified job category created organizational elasticity.
The negotiation not only compensated drivers for losing the incentive route system, but also increased the salary for many of them.
Allowing drivers to cross-train and learn the different aspects of the solid waste operation helped them deal with changes caused by the recycling laws, public demand for efficient municipal services and the mechanization of their work.
Several automated collection vehicles were street-tested, and the selection was made by considering managements', field supervisors' and operators' input. The city chose Heil's Rapid Rail automated system and Volvo/White GMC trucks.
The Division of Solid Waste analyzed its current routing systems and identified inefficiencies such as route overlaps.
As a result, refuse and recycling routes were revised, dividing the city into five sectors (refuse and recycling are both one day a week service) - a change that affected 8,087 customers out of 11,091 accounts.
The new system reduced the number of routes from seven rear-loader routes to three fully automated routes and three rear-loader routes.
Start Spreading the News Two weeks prior to service and route changes, customers were notified by mail. Then, a reminder sticker notice was placed on the refuse cart one week before the change. Finally, to ensure the highest level of compliance, a reminder postcard was mailed to reach customers on the day before their new collection day.
This notification paid off: approximately 98 percent complied and only 146 customers called to say that they had either forgotten or had not received information about the change.
The drivers and field supervisors were key to the program's success. Because they began operating the automated vehicles one month ahead of schedule, they were able to start both the automation and new routes simultaneously in February. This new collection system and routes - Santa Cruz's largest reorganization - also coincided with one of the worst local winter storms in 100 years.
Indeed, refuse and recycling collection continued uninterrupted during California's El Nino storm disaster. Undeterred, the drivers and supervisors worked around the flooded streets, downed trees and power lines, and emergency vehicles blocking the streets.
A New Road Lies Ahead Santa Cruz's fully operating collection system continuous to evolve. Some streets initially scheduled for automation have proven difficult to service because of traffic. But other streets scheduled with semi-automation service now have been identified for automation. Obviously, further fine-tuning is necessary.
The next operational challenge will be modernizing the recycling collection program. Currently, residents receive two recycling bags and are encouraged to use brown bags for newspaper recycling. This system makes collection a physically demanding task for workers and an inconvenience for customers.
To increase residential participation and improve recycling collection, a new program is being developed working with residents, city staff and two vendors, Otto and Heil.
A test conducted last year using a split, 68-gallon recycling cart revealed that the participants (30 households) liked the container's size and convenience. The city's field experience in servicing the 68-gallon recycling cart will result in a modification to the Heil truck.
As a result of the automation program's success, additional investments have been made to improve the recycling collection program, which goes into effect this September: Four new trucks (Heil recycling bodies mounted on low-entry Volvo/ White GMCs) will arrive early this summer to serve the 12,000 68-gallon split-compartment carts.
What did we learn? Small cities can provide solid waste services at reasonable costs. But as technology, new recycling regulations and markets continue to drive changes, small communities must develop partnerships with its residents and elected officials, as well as solid waste workers and administrators - from field supervisors and customer service representatives to mechanics and vendors.
Only through these partnerships can smaller communities succeed in meeting the challenges of change - head on.
Refuse trucks. 6 rear loaders, Heil 5000 on Volvo White; 4 side loaders, Rapid Rail on Volvo White; 4 roll-off trucks, Volvo White; 4 recycling trucks, ADR body on International; 1 recycling truck Heil 1000 on FE Volvo.
Containers. Otto (32-, 64- and 96-gallon); Bay-Con or Consolidated (1-, 2-, 4- and 6- yard); Bay-Con Consolidated roll-off boxes (10-, 15-, 20- and 40-cubic yards).
Customers. 11,150 residential accounts, 1,058 commercial, 150 industrial.
Employees. 31 solid waste collection and recycling; 4 street sweeping, container maintenance; 3 supervisors; 1 superintendent.
Service area. City of Santa Cruz municipality.
Services provided. Residential collection, recycling, demolition debris removal, business and industry waste collection, street sweeping.
Local tipping fees. $39.50 per ton.
Most interesting. Developing a partnership between sanitation and police department to create a "Neighborhood Watch on Wheels." The drivers report suspicious activity or situations to the police department.