The challenges facing today's collection managers are drastically different than a year ago. Concerns about the economy, homeland security and just getting through one more day are prominent in the minds of much of the country. But what's the view at the end of the driveway or the bottom of the cart? To find out, Waste Age talked to three collection managers:
Thomas Farrell, manager of solid waste and recycling for Berkeley, Calif.;
Paul Patterson, administrator of solid waste management for the Division of Public Works, Memphis, Tenn.; and
Dale Henderson, East Group's service machine coordinator for Waste Management Inc. based in Brick, N.J.
WASTE AGE (WA): What challenges do you expect the solid waste industry to face now and in five years?
FARRELL: The subdivision of the waste stream is going to be a bigger challenge. We now are separately collecting motor oil, CRTs (cathode ray tubes), tires and, we also have a separate waste stream for overstuffed chairs, mattresses and couches. I also see more waste despite the recycling and diversion. The population increase appears to be outstripping the ability to recycle and divert.
HENDERSON: The need to improve the quality of our service to customers. The perception of service and how that service is delivered is equally as important. Typically, commercial customer groups [place] all solid waste providers on par with the local cable company and the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). That is not where we want to be. The waste industry has a definite obligation to improve its performance to customers.
PATTERSON: Becoming more efficient and effective because of the competition, tax dollars and current economic climate. Municipal collection agencies are measured by our counterparts in the private sector, and it's incumbent on us to become more efficient and effective. We are going to have to begin looking at integrating new technology.
WA: What's the status of privatization vs. public agencies taking back control? Why is this occurring?
FARRELL: Our service record can be matched against anybody's in the area. Public utilities should be able to do the job cheaper, but there are two reasons that this isn't always clear. One is management: The public sector undervalues the skills of its managers. Second, it's almost impossible for politics to be kept out of municipal services.
HENDERSON: The lack of consistent service provided by vendors to the public sector is pushing DPW (department of public works) directors to suggest [public sector operations] repurchase trucks and hire employees. Service providers sometimes have had a difficult time enforcing and providing quality service. Consequently, the public sector is having a hard time enforcing quality standards in their contracts. So DPW directors now are very cautious; they know that the lowest bid doesn't necessarily guarantee acceptable performance. Our industry sometimes is sloppy in providing service to municipalities. Our role as an industry is to provide service that exceeds customer expectations both in quality service and cost-effectiveness.
PATTERSON: [Public agencies] are interested in having more direct control over customer service. There is a pretty big presence of public collection in this area. One of the issues that has to be addressed when public agencies get out of collection and then want to get back in is the cost. It can be staggering.
WA: Is it becoming easier to find and keep employees?
FARRELL: We have not had a problem recruiting in the past 10 years. We go out once a year and advertise for new employees to create an eligibility list. We usually get 160 to 200 applicants. Our recruiting efforts are targeted toward women [and] all the major publications in the San Francisco Bay area. Years ago, there was a concerted effort to hire women, and [the company] hired six, five of which were gone within two years. We're always interested in a diverse workforce, but very few women apply for the work to begin with.
HENDERSON: It's not becoming easier to find good employees. You must have good benefits and proper compensation to attract and maintain good employees, but we've also recognized that potential employees look at the reputation and the overall quality of the organization. World-class companies have a much easier time getting the attention of potential employees because of their reputation. We believe that developing a company employees can be proud of is equally important.
PATTERSON: We have not had any problems recruiting people. A lot of our people come up through the ranks and become supervisors and managers. We also look outside, and we hire some people from the private sector. What may be making solid waste management more attractive is that it has evolved into an industry that is no longer just focused on picking up trash behind a resident's house and disposing of it.
WA: How are increasing numbers of transfer stations and the rise in mega-landfills affecting your operations?
FARRELL: Hardly at all. There are other large transfer stations in this area, but their rates tend to be higher than or equal to ours. The decision to use the transfer station falls more on access and drive time than the price once you get to the gate. Our advantages or disadvantages are based on proximity to the freeway. This area also is blessed with a large number of landfills. The one that we use has an estimated capacity for another 20 years at its current volume.
HENDERSON: Large, regional state-of-the-practice landfills are required to be cost-effective and meet the demands of the regulatory community, but there are trade-offs. The larger the landfill, the more significant the cycle time is for collection vehicles. A truck pulls up to the landfill's scales and it can be, in some cases, an hour to an hour and a half before that truck is back on the road. That's a significant issue. That is where a well-designed, properly sited transfer station network can really add benefit to a collection hauling operation.
PATTERSON: We have two good-sized landfills located in Shelby County, Tenn., that we contract with for disposal. [Because of] their volumes, they're in a better position to give us attractive rates. Our transfer stations complement the overall efficiency of our collection program. We can get our trucks back onto the route quicker. We're using low-entry, dual-drive rear loaders that are fairly low to the ground, and it helps to keep those off landfills and on city streets from a maintenance standpoint.
WA: What is the current and future status of source-reduction and recycling?
FARRELL: Berkeley will move toward collecting plant debris, yard waste and food waste from the kitchen every week. Right now, we collect plant debris every other week. Dry garbage will be picked up every other week. Food waste is the heaviest leftover component of our waste stream, and if we are going to continue to reduce the tonnage, then we are going to have to get a lot more of the food waste into the system. We are going to have to involve ourselves with recycling or disposing of fluorescent tubes and flashlight batteries. The city is going to have a real heart-to-heart conversation with itself about whether curbside recycling will continue using two tubs or [transition] into a single container with much more sophisticated sort[ing] facilities. That debate tends to fall along the lines of highest and best use vs. maximum tonnage diverted.
HENDERSON: We're the industry's largest provider of recycling services, collecting more than 5,000,000 tons per year and processing that through 190 materials recovery facilities. We're heavily invested in recycling, but the bottom line is recycling has to have a positive return on investments. When we are faced with declining markets and falling commodity prices, the industry is forced to maximize the efficiency of collection and processing operations. With processing, we've incorporated technologies like optical sorting and the best available equipment to maximize efficiency. The rest of the equation lies in the commodity value of the product. This is a commodity-based environment and what is not economical today to recycle may very well become economical in the near future.
PATTERSON: One of the biggest bangs for our bucks is the diversion of organic yard waste. We have a separate program where we process organic yard waste and sell mulch and compost to dealers. Last year, we sold about 70,000 tons. We're looking at expanding recycling drop-off centers for multi-family housing [complexes] that currently are not serviced. We want to try to expand our marketing efforts in mulch and compost. There may be some opportunity for us to look at retailing some product ourselves.
WA: Has security, the economy and terrorist attacks affected your operations?
FARRELL: No. We are a little bit more tuned-in to disaster disposal, but we had all of that with the earthquake and Oakland fire. So, alternate plans for disposal sites and for temporary stockpiles for that already have been addressed. [Our plan is] not based on a man-made disaster, but on natural disasters. [But] I can't say labeling it a different kind of disaster would change our operation a great deal.
HENDERSON: We talked to our employees first, and then we provided training on specific responses to situations such as the anthrax scare. Our employees were adamant about reporting anything unusual. Many of our transfer and collection companies are involved in waste watch programs, partnering with local police departments to report unusual things. We secured our assets through facility controls, fencing and alarms, but we also have asset management via inventory on trucks, containers and other hard goods. Certain industries were impacted by 9/11, and we definitely saw a downturn in volumes. We are all waiting for a more substantial bounce back in the economy, but it has been fairly slow to return.
PATTERSON: The biggest change we've seen focuses on site security installations. We always have had security at night. However, we have a heightened sense of awareness of unauthorized personnel, and we are more observant of things that may be around our facilities.
WA: What satisfies you about your role in today's solid waste industry, and why?
FARRELL: There are a lot of jobs out there where the industries come and go, but the solid waste industry hardly flinches. What I like about the job is it is real work, plus it changes all the time.
HENDERSON: It's a fascinating business and requires me to constantly build new skills. But the most important thing I've found is that I've got to retain those skills. You're always tapping into skill sets that you've crafted and built over the years. There's a great depth to what we do, and there's always a new challenge around the corner.
PATTERSON: I am convinced that we provide an extremely crucial and essential public service to maintain public health and to protect the environment. To have a part in that is exciting and rewarding.
Lynn Merrill is the director of public services for San Bernardino, Calif.
CITY OF BERKELEY AT-A-GLANCE
Services and Service Area: Refuse collection; recycling collection (residential by contract, in-house for commercial recycling, roll-off container service); transfer station and transfer to the landfill; city owned, vendor-operated regional recycling buy-back center; and plant debris collection and composting for 9-square-mile, 110,000 population area.
No. & Types of Customers: 27,000 accounts: 20,000 residential; 7,000 other (multi-family, institutional, commercial and industrial).
No. & Types of Trucks: 6 Crane Carrier/Heil Environmental Industries rear loaders; 6 Crane Carrier/McNeilus rear loaders; 4 Volvo/Heil rear loaders: 2 Volvo/Leach rear loaders; 2 Crane Carrier/McClain EZ-Pack front loaders; 1 Crane Carrier/Dempster front loader; and 1 Crane Carrier/Leach front loader.
No. & Types of Containers: 16-gallon totes; 32-, 64-, 96-gallon semi-automated carts by Otto Industries and Schaefer Systems; 1-, 1.5-, 2.3-, 4- and 6-cubic yard bins by various manufacturers.
No. of Employees: 100
MEMPHIS, TENN. AT-A-GLANCE
Services and Service Area: Integrated (garbage, trash, recycling) municipal solid waste collection program for the city of Memphis, Tenn.
No. & Types of Customers: 180,000 residential; 7,000 small commercial.
No. & Types of Trucks: 250 Crane Carrier/Leach rear loaders; 20 Peterson Knuckle-boom loaders; 65 Crane/Dempster recyclers (side loaders) with split compartments for commingled recyclables and newspaper; 7 Crane Carrier/Labrie Equipment automated loaders.
No. & Types of Containers: 90-gallon Zarn (Plastic Omnium Urban Systems) and Ameri-Kart containers.
No. of Employees: 650
WASTE MANAGEMENT AT-A-GLANCE
Services and Service Area: Collection, disposal and recycling services throughout North America, including Canada and Puerto Rico. 16 WTE facilities.
No. & Types of Customers: 25 million residential, 2 million commercial.
No. & Types of Trucks: 30,000 collection vehicles with Mack Truck or Freightliner chassis and Wittke, McNeilus, G&H Manufacturing and Dempster bodies.
No. & Types of Containers: Steel Refuse containers — front-end load and rear-end load, 1-yard through 10-yard by Wastequip Corp.; Steel Roll-Off Containers — 15-, 20-, 30-, and 40-yard containers by McClain Industries Inc.; Compactors — Marathon Equipment Co.; and Plastic Roll-Out Carts — 35-, 64- and 96-gallon carts by Cascade Engineering.
No. of Employees: 57,000