L.A. Recycles: The Next Generation

Experience can be the best teacher, especially if the subject is solid waste. Schooled in refuse management for decades, the city of Los Angeles Solid Waste Division is facing its latest challenge: creating a new automated recycling collection program that will ultimately help decrease its budget.

Collection represents 50 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW) management budgets, according to a recent Solid Waste Association of North America (Silver Spring, Md.) report. Their study reviews several communities' experiences at upgrading their collection systems to incorporate semi- or fully-automated collections.

Los Angeles is the latest city to commit to this type of collection for recyclables. Beginning in late summer, the city will begin providing 90-gallon carts to 720,000 city households.

Based on the results of a recent three-month pilot study, officials at the city's Bureau of Sanitation selected a single-stream cart system to replace a yellow bin manual collection system, costing the city approximately $33 million in cart purchases.

While this system appears to meet the city's objectives of improving collection efficiencies, increasing tonnages, improving convenience to the customer and reducing scavenging, six area material recovery facilities (MRF) will bear the brunt of sorting and marketing.

Prior to the April 1996 kick-off of the Second Generation Recycling Pilot Pro-gram, the Bureau of Sanitation began measures to reduce their overall collection budget for refuse, yard trimmings and recyclables by 25 percent over four years.

These cost efficiencies are being generated from several areas and have totaled 20 percent throughout the 1997 to 1998 bud-get year, according to Drew Sones, the director in the city's Bur-eau of Sanitation:

* In conjunction with a joint labor/management team, a work standard was established for the automated collection of refuse and yard trimmings which has in-creased steadily as drivers and customers become more familiar with the automated collection system.

* Truck availability was increased from 85 percent needed each day to more than 100 percent.

* Pre-and post-trip inspections by drivers were standardized and re-pairs identified at the shift's end were completed at night, and trucks were ready to roll in the morning.

* Radios were approved for installation in each truck, improving coordination and helping to build a sense of teamwork among the drivers in each district.

* On-board computers were approved to help drivers understand their performance better and to identify areas for improvement.

* Process Action Teams (PATs) were formed in each of the six district yards so that drivers, supervisors and managers could meet regularly to discuss and plan for future efficiency improvements. These PATs are currently working on establishing self-directed teams that will ultimately manage their own work load and implement future efficiencies.

The change to the new blue cart system ultimately reduces the number of recycling routes from 134 to 100 which equals a 25 percent reduction in the current collection costs of the yellow bin recycling system.

A total of 15 routes - one for each council district - were chosen to test three collection methods (five routes per method). The selection criteria included:

* low yellow bin participation;

* medium yellow bin participation;

* high yellow bin participation;

* high density neighborhoods; and

* hillside terrain.

The three collection methods were:

* split 90-gallon cart - half for containers and half for paper;

* single-stream 90-gallon cart with all recyclables intermixed; and

* hybrid system 90-gallon cart with recyclables placed in a plastic bag and paper placed loose in the cart.

The split-cart system achieved the majority of the bureau's objectives, such as improving collection efficiencies, increasing tonnages, improving convenience to the customer, improving or maintaining revenue and re-ducing scavenging.

However, in spite of higher contamination, the single stream method was chosen by the city because that system collected more tonnage comparatively and the city could use its existing fleet of packers, which also can be used interchangeably for yard trimmings and refuse collection, says Daniel Hackney, project coordinator of the Second Generation Recycling Program. As for retrofitting the existing fleet, Hackney admits, "it doesn't seem viable."

The city placed a strong emphasis on a system which would discourage scavenging since it causes major revenue problems.

According to Hackney, a large cart with a lid and the commingling in the containers with the paper tends to make scavenging less attractive because it requires more time and energy to retrieve materials and is not as convenient as the yellow bin system where newspapers were neatly stacked.

During the tests, the city found that the hybrid system made scavenging easier since materials were pre- bagged inside the carts. After 12 weeks, these five routes were converted to a single stream.

Mark Miodovski, marketing manager for the bureau notes that "different areas of L.A. are like independent cities. North and South Cen-tral L.A. use buy-back centers for aluminum, therefore the program costs are higher since we lose this revenue." Despite these dynamics, he says, the single stream fared the best for the whole city.

The bureau also noticed that old corrugated cardboard (OCC) collection jumped. "We are seeing more OCC because it's convenient for customers to recycle now. Customers don't have to break down the boxes," Miodovski says. "Compaction rates differ from one side of the city to another. The rate is set depending on the area's recyclables' composition."

One sore subject among some residents was that some carts were being left in the street for the week following collection, says Hackney. Learning of this complaint through community meetings, he noted that a key component in the citywide public education program will be to remind customers of the requirement to remove the carts after collection. "We'll let customers know we are putting teeth into enforcement," he stresses.

Just A Second Cart For Trash? While the single-stream system is less work for the residents, it also allows the greatest potential for possible higher contamination levels. In the pilot, the city measured contamination at 10 percent or less among the split-cart and single-stream collection methods. Given these results, the city is not expecting a serious contamination problem.

"Our largest single-stream contaminants are plastic bags and styrofoam," says Hackney. "You would have thought you'd increase paper contamination, but we learned that it was negligible. The public education from the early days of recycling paid off, because materials were very clean. There were no full cans of soda; materials were rinsed."

However, it is entirely possible for liquid residue and glass shards to contaminate the paper stream. There are quality concerns with mixing glass and paper together, says Ed Hurley, manager of legislative affairs for Jefferson Smurfit Corp., Clayton, Mo.

When asked what types of problems can result from a single-stream program, Hurley says the hazards are plenty at the paper mill, referring to the paper pulping process. "It's like a whirring blender with shards of glass shooting out," he says.

Food waste is another concern, says Hurley. "Recovered paper that is going to be used to make food packaging by mills is very sensitive to any food residue," he says, using pizza boxes as an example.

Single-Stream Processing Hackney admits that not every contracted MRF is designed to deal with a single stream. "MRFs lobbied heavily for a split container," says Hackney. "But the increase in tonnage will pay for the drop in revenue."

Miodovski is confident that the single stream will be most cost-efficient way to recycle.

"The split-cart option was our preference," says Peter Moore, consultant for City Fibers, which owns and operates a MRF in L.A. He is anticipating that single-stream collection means that processors must find more ways to sort materials.

During the pilot program, City Fibers found processing time for single-stream materials to be 12 tph whereas previously, paper was 20 tph and commingled containers were 40 tph, says Moore. Labor costs also increased as it went from running six 12-hour days to 24 hours a day.

Moore understands the city's reasons for wanting to implement a system which would result in significant cost savings, efficiencies and lower workers compensation. The single-stream system allows them to use one truck for each collection (yard waste, trash and recyclables), he says.

What's Next? Following the purchase of the 90-gallon carts, the city will begin distribution in late summer. The system will take about 18 months to implement, according to Miodovski. The West Valley district will be the first homes to get their carts, he says.

To educate residents on the change, the city will embark on a massive publicity blitz using television and radio advertisements and community group presentations. Hackney says the citywide tonnage should be even higher than the pilot results, given that minimal information - a note taped to the new carts - was distributed to residents on the pilot routes.

Moore told city officials they'd have to start all over again with public education to keep out contamination and stressed the importance of training the collection crews to notify residents if they find trash in the recyclables' cart. "The front line guys are the safety net," he says.

The city also re-bid the MRF contracts and switched from yearly to three-year contracts. Plus, for the first time, a floor price was required. According to Miodovski, the board of public works instructed staff to reduce the city's financial risk by securing minimum floor prices in exchange for city concessions when revenue is higher. "The MRFs understand the risk," he says.

The new floor price will be between $5 to $10 per ton. A tiered revenue-sharing component of the contract was designed so that the city can realize some revenue as prices move upward, he adds. Market prices will be reviewed quarterly for adjustments, and MRFs will provide the city with monthly tonnage reports.

A comparison of the costs to recycle using the single-stream cart system versus the bin system in L.A. revealed that the bin averages $1.21 monthly cost per home, whereas the cart averages 7pound. (From the final report; revenue from 1996 was included in this calculation.)

For some residences that are not able to accommodate a 90-gallon cart, smaller carts will be available on a limited basis. People with special needs may get a 30-gallon cart, and apartment dwellers will use 60-gallon carts.

New trucks are a future option, however the city can handle the roll-out using the existing trash and yard waste collection trucks.

"If the tonnage increases, you can get to more households per route because trucks have more capacity, plus people won't set out a large cart as much, resulting in a reduction of routes and drivers," says Miodovski, who stressed that the city's immediate focus is on better and more convenient customer service rather than on addition of materials.

* Between September 1990 and April 1997, every household was added to a curbside collection for recyclables - a total of 720,000 households.

* Program uses a 16-gallon yellow bin for commingled containers, including plastic and glass bottles, metal cans. Paper is tied with string or set in brown paper bag and includes newspaper and household mixed papers, including paperboard, kraft bags, old telephone books, magazines, unwanted mail, home correspondence paper, and envelopes. Corrugated cardboard is set out separate from mixed papers.

* California law requires L.A. to divert 25 percent of its waste stream by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000.

* Existing curbside collection netted a recycling rate between 6 percent and 8 percent.

* L.A. also collects yard waste weekly using 60-gallon green carts. Trash is collected weekly using 60-gallon black carts.