Collection Strategy Blooms In The Desert

With municipal elections just around the corner, the pressure is on to cut deficits and reduce government spending. Local municipal solid waste (MSW) and recycling budgets are not exempt from increasing scrutiny and pressure to cut costs while continuing to maintain the same - or increasing - services with little or no increases in expenditures.

Of all services provided by local governments, municipal solid waste management budget cuts are probably the most politically-acceptable targets. Think about it: Reductions in fire and police protection generate images of death and mayhem, while reductions in school budgets generate fears that children will grow up uneducated and unable to support themselves. Thus, MSW managers are sensing the significance of economy.

Where do you start streamlining costs? Collection. It should be no surprise to MSW managers familiar with local solid waste budgets and system costs that collection is often the most expensive element. Luckily, several cost saving options are available. Depending on local conditions, some are more feasible than others, but all require customization.

Altering Frequency Changing the collection frequency is one cost-cutting measure. Many communities streamline by collecting RSW (residential solid waste) and recyclables each one day per week instead of two days per week. Many communities have incorporated curbside recycling through this shift.

However, frequency changes often require personnel and route alterations as well. For example, most residents put out more waste on the first collection day of the week (or the day closest to the end of the weekend). The second collection day often has a lower set-out rate and thus, a lower total quantity of waste collected.

Consolidating the amount of RSW from two days to one often will decrease the amount of stops per truck per day since the truck will fill up faster.

While this would demand more routes and personnel, the MSW manager's largest task still would be overcoming the public's resistance to change.

Mesa's Success Mesa, the third-largest city in Arizona, encompasses 123 square miles with an estimated population of 329,000. Before implementing several cost-saving collection strategies in 1993 - including changing the collection frequency - Mesa provided approximately 65,300 homes with curbside or alley collection of RSW twice a week using automated side-loader trucks and one-person municipal crews.

Most residents used 90-gallon black barrels or 440-gallon black barrels in alleys. Currently 75,800 homes are served by automated collection (see table on page 26 for service levels and set-out rates).

Manual rear loaders serviced a small percentage of residents because some homeowner associations requested manual service, some streets are unable to support the weight of automated vehicles and a few locations - such as dead ends - are too awkward for the trucks to maneuver.

Prior to any system changes, Mesa maintained approximately 90 drop-off areas for recyclables, however there was no separate collection of recyclables or yard waste. Mesa also collected MSW from businesses and multi-family households. Bulky wastes and white goods were collected when requested.

Why Make A Change? Increasing demands spurred by a booming population are reason enough to scrutinize the collection process for efficiency. However, Mesa had several additional reasons for considering system changes. The most significant catalyst was a mandate from residential customers and the city council to institute a curbside recycling program.

Following the decision to implement a curbside recycling program for residents, the city concentrated on minimizing the potential customer cost increases.

At the same time, it recognized the need to boost staff morale and increase productivity to bolster customer service.

In October 1993, Mesa began designing and implementing several collection system changes. In addition to altering the frequency of RSW collection from twice to once per week, the city also:

* added curbside recyclables collection;

* shifted management style;

* implemented detailed productivity and cost tracking systems;

* made vehicle improvements; and

* instituted routing changes.

Changing the collection frequency required Mesa to petition the State for a variance from laws requiring twice-a-week RSW collection. To date, this frequency change is complete in approximately two-thirds of the city. The entire system is scheduled to be in place by early 1997.

With a reduction in collection frequency, the route size would be expected to decrease since more RSW would be set out per stop (see table on page 26). The decrease in the residents served per route would be greater if Mesa did not also increase the payload capacity of their fleet.

Before shifting frequency and adding the recycling program, Mesa operated 116 routes per week using automated side-loaders. Once the recycling program is fully implemented, it will operate 82 residential routes and 45 routes for recyclables collection per week.

A total of 11 routes were added as a result of the new recycling program, the shift in collection frequency and the larger capacity of the automated trucks.

The number of route changes includes an increased workload of more than 23 percent - more than 15,000 homes - since the program's implementation.

By July 1996, all residents serviced with automated collection - approximately 98 percent of the total residences - were eligible for recyclables collection services.

Participation in the recycling program is voluntary: Every eligible resident is provided with a recycling container unless he or she specifically asks not to receive one. To date, only 2 percent have opted to not participate.

The materials Mesa collects include:

* newspaper;

* white and colored office paper;

* computer paper and magazines;

* corrugated cardboard and chipboard;

* clear, green and brown glass containers;

* aluminum cans; and

* tin/steel cans.

To increase communication between the "front-line" employees and management and operating personnel, Mesa began including operators and mechanics in monthly meetings between the fleet service and Solid Waste and Facilities Division. Increased communication has reduced vehicle downtime and maintained a low operator turnover rate.

Mesa credits the successful implementation of the program to a number of factors:

* an integrated approach of several concurrent changes that helped it modify the system with minimal amount of pain felt by the residents;

* clear and concise educational and promotional material that effectively communicated the "how" and "why" messages about the new collection program;

* options made available to residents, such as allowing those who preferred the twice-per-week collection schedule to opt to pay for extra service;

* patience and flexibility in dealing with unique characteristics of certain neighborhoods and sensitive populations.

Lessons Learned In addition to the Mesa survey, the SWANA project included fact sheets on seven additional communities that have altered the frequency of collection and/or instituted a recycling program at the same time.

The reasons for the shift in collection frequency vary across the communities contacted. Most respondents attributed the shift to cost reduction and private sector competition. However, all surveyed communities stressed the need for more public education prior to the system shift in practices.