An Automatic Decision?

AS SOCIETY BECOMES more computerized, people often lament the fact that old-fashioned manpower is being replaced by machines. In the solid waste industry, for example, the growing reliance on automated collection trucks often means that the work of two- or three-person teams can now be done by one worker. In addition to being costly up front, critics say automation trades human strength and interaction for a cold hydraulic lifting arm.

In practice, however, waste companies are increasingly realizing that automation has several benefits, both for the bottom line and for employees. It can increase efficiencies in routing and collection, reduce costs over the long term, lessen worker strain and injury, and improve the quality of life for sanitation workers.

Automated technology has come a long way since the late 1960s when Marc Stragier, often called “the father of automation,” developed a front-loader called “Godzilla” that was outfitted with forklift arms (see Waste Age, May 2001, for an article about Stragier). Today, the Waste Equipment Technology Association, Washington, estimates that about 18 percent of all U.S. haulers have at least one automated refuse collection vehicle, and that 15 percent of the collection trucks sold in this country in 2003 were automated sideloaders.

“Automated sideloaders, as far as equipment sales, are the fastest-growing body style or body configuration in the industry and are expected to grow even more in the next five years,” says Melissa Gauger, marketing manager with International Truck and Engine Corp., Warrenville, Ill. “There are several reasons for this, and the main ones are reducing driver shortages, keeping drivers on the job, and reducing worker compensation and safety incidents. There is a lot of efficiency to be gained with automation.”

This year's WasteExpo featured a session on the future of automation, sponsored by the Washington-based Environmental Industry Association's Women's Council. Gauger joined Cindy Jones, assistant manager of Pro Star Waste, Goodrich, Texas; Jim Rankin, Western regional operations manager, Republic Services, Las Vegas; and Madeleine Szots, marketing director for Labrie Equipment Ltd., Saint-Nicolas, Quebec, Canada, to talk about the latest advances in automation and the challenges and benefits of switching from manual collection. Representing both haulers and manufacturers, the speakers expounded on their presentations for Waste Age.

The Benefits

Moving to automated collection can vastly increase the efficiency of and volume collected by a refuse fleet, Rankin says. Republic has found that switching from a residential rearloader to an automated sideloader can mean the difference between two men servicing 80 houses an hour and one man servicing 100 houses an hour — more than doubling the route's efficiency.

Automation also has been proven to limit lost workdays and workers' compensation. One hauler that switched to automated collection reported going from 700 lost workdays in one year down to zero, Szots says. “When we ask operators to push, pull or lift, they are straining already sore muscles,” she says. “Automation is a safer way of picking up the waste, and it will be reflected in how much less a fleet will pay in workers' compensation or suffer from lost days due to injuries. That translates into a lot of savings.”

Automated collection also improves the quality of life for operators, observers note. On a basic level, drivers don't come home smelling as bad as they used to, and they often find that their bodies hold up longer.

In addition, automation opens up collection jobs to women, which can help companies deal with driver shortages. “You don't have to be the 300-pound guy who can lift a water heater over his head,” Gauger says. “You're not getting physically worn out. And that's only going to be better for the industry in general.”

The Challenges

Despite the potential benefits that automated collection offers haulers, the technology is not problem-free. For example, automated vehicles require more maintenance. “We're seeing a 35 to 40 percent increase in maintenance costs,” Rankin says. “You can almost see a pattern where you get three to four years into an automated truck's lifecycle, and then you need to start really paying attention to maintenance. You'll go through the fleet and refresh all the arms, for instance.”

Up-front costs are another potential pitfall. Trucks, carts and community education all have associated costs, Szots says. “Imagine you have to provide 100,000 carts for 100,000 homes,” she explains. “That's your first investment. Then of course you have to train all the people that will be involved, and that goes from city council to the people in the fleet — supervisors, managers, operators and even mechanics — and, finally, the people you serve.”

Automation also can mean more miles traveled for drivers. Republic estimates that converting from a rearloader to an automated sideloader can add one disposal trip per shift. “Sometimes the driving distance makes the improved productivity a lesser gain,” Rankin says. “We also find that we have added mileage in many small neighborhoods, since we cannot pick up on both sides of the street.”

Driver loneliness is another problem that hauling firms may have to deal with when converting to an automated system. “Here's a guy who's been slinging trash and loves the physical effort, and now he's in the cab essentially working a joystick,” Rankin says. “He has no one to talk to, but he is doing 30 to 40 percent more work and covering 30 to 40 more miles.” Many drivers pass the time by talking with each other over the radio, Rankin says.

Republic's automation training program focuses not only on mechanics and operation, but also on driver comfort and quality of life. “Especially if they're 15- or 20-year employees, the conversion can be tough on them,” Rankin says. “But at the same time, those 50-year-old guys can now see their career going to retirement [with automated collection].”

Waste firms also should be prepared to engage in extensive customer education when adopting automation. Residents need to be educated about where to place their bins and what kinds of trash can be collected. Bulky items such as couches and tables usually require an entirely separate pickup.

Some communities work around this by holding “community cleanup days” during which residents can put out their bulky and special waste for collection, Rankin says. Republic does demonstrations in local schools to get kids to understand the process, and they often can pass on those lessons to their parents.

Finally, automation may not work as well in dense areas with on-street parking or alleyways as it does in suburban or rural areas. To solve this issue, some communities tie garbage collection in with street sweeping days, posting signs in advance so that people can move their cars. However, the messages do not always reach all customers, posing potential difficulties.

Despite the challenges, automated systems can be modified to suit a wide variety of community needs, Szots says. “People say, ‘I can't implement automation because our narrow streets, parked cars, or something else makes it impossible,’” she says. “This is false, and any automated manufacturer would agree with me. We cannot guarantee that it will work everywhere, but there are so many ways to make it work.”

High Tech and High Touch

Pro Star Waste has discovered that automation has allowed the company to operate more efficiently, even in far-flung rural areas of east Texas. “With the perspective of 40-plus years in the industry, we observed that automation was the way trash was going,” says Cindy Jones. “Trash needs to be containerized; it needs to be convenient; and you have to avoid the problems with animals, dogs, and raccoons, etc.”

The company operates according to an individually billed subscription service, in which each resident that receives waste pickup must agree to a written contract. “It's a one-year evergreen agreement, spelling out all the policies and procedures, care and feeding of the cart, and so on,” Jones explains. “The person who delivers it also instructs the resident on how to place the carton on the street. You basically have an educational aspect through the written contract and through the delivery.”

Somewhat ironically, for an all-automated company, routes are charted and tracked using a low-tech color-coded system. Using grease pencils, the office circles new customers in blue, customers who haven't paid in red, and houses where specific problems or questions need to be addressed in green. “Everything is going to GPS [global positioning systems], and all that is fine when everything is working perfectly,” Jones says. “But for us, it's both high tech and high touch. There is a demand for good service. We have relationships with customers, and we have opportunities to be ‘good ol’ boys.' Since we don't have stockholders, the customer is king.”

Jones admits that automated equipment costs more and requires more maintenance and trained mechanics. “But the profit margin more than offsets the high cost of entry and the higher level of maintenance, so we are able to pay cash for the high cost of containers,” she says.

The Future

Gauger anticipates that automated collection will be a growing part of the waste industry for the foreseeable future, but says there will be a limit. “Some people say the rearloader will die out and become a museum piece,” she says. “But for every rearloader that gets taken out of service somewhere, another one is ordered and replaced. I think there will always be a balance between automated and manual collection. When you get into a high-density area, that's where the rear-loading collection will still be popular.”

Kim O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.