Picture Perfect

For waste management executives, a mapped picture of a trading area may be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Modern map technology, called geographic information systems (GIS), has made strides in the past five years, and waste management executives using this technology are claiming substantial benefits in routing efficiency. Many observers expect GIS benefits to expand to encompass marketing and asset management. Nevertheless, today GIS systems are primarily applied to routing operations.

“I am judged on productivity increases in routing,” says Keith Tubbs, operations specialist with the Raleigh, N. C.-based Waste Industries Inc. “If I don't show improvements of at least 6 percent, my success rate is considered low.”

To help achieve these gains, Tubbs began using a routing software program, manufactured by Columbia, Md.-based RouteSmart Technologies for his 40 collection operations in Alabama, the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.

Tubbs estimates that the productivity in these regional offices has increased by 6 percent to 10 percent. “In some rare cases such as New Orleans, I've gotten increases as high as 20 percent,” he comments.

The city of Olathe, Kan., recently addressed routing inefficiencies using GIS. When the 2000 census showed a 38 percent population increase to 100,000 residents, city officials decided its manual system was no longer workable.

“We had been routing our trucks by hand,” says Ted Payne, city GIS analyst. “Someone would look at a map of the city with a new subdivision and split up the houses among the collection trucks. It took days, and the results had a ripple effect over all of our routes. Finally, we decided that the increase in population made it impossible for our manual decision making process to keep up.”

The city's new system provides four different routing models, which it now is evaluating. Each model will save time and fuel, according to Payne.

Initially, city officials required any new routing system to maintain existing schedules. In other words, if a particular neighborhood received service on Tuesdays, that shouldn't change. Three of Payne's models adhere to that requirement. The fourth, however, suggests shifting collections at 700 houses from Wednesdays to Fridays.

This model could produce savings of 5 percent in the city's collection budget, following an anticipated two-year learning curve as drivers acclimate themselves to the new routes. So despite its desire to maintain existing collection schedules for residents, Olathe is considering implementing the change.

The routes are streamlined using ArcView, a GIS product developed by Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), Redlands, Calif., that organizes geographic data in RouteSmart's program into three layers and includes streets, customers located along the streets and facilities showing truck yards and disposal options.

Layering is key to GIS mapping. If a waste manager looks at a street map of a collection area and can push a button to overlay dots onto that map representing the customers along one driver's Monday route, then add a second driver's Monday customers, but with different colored dots, the colored dots could illustrate route inconsistencies. Add to that a layer of customer locations color-coded by driver and locations of truck yards, transfer stations and landfills, and the scope of inefficiencies within a collection system can become devastatingly clear.

Routing software built on top of a GIS system uses algorithms or algebraic formulas to evaluate distances along routes and distances to and from disposal facilities and truck yards. The software then re-draws routes in a way that reduces the overall mileage traveled by the trucks.

“I can reduce mileage in two different ways,” Tubbs says. “First, I try to balance out each day. For example, if Monday, Wednesday and Friday are the days with the most lifts and yards, I will route those days paying particular attention to the locations of transfer stations and landfills. For Tuesday and Thursday, with fewer lifts and yards, I'll end up with more mileage, but I can still optimize that.

“The second method of reducing mileage is the most effective: changing days of service to balance out the days and to reduce mileage between stops,” he continues. This is the primary way that I work.”

Of course, routing software recommendations aren't always perfect. “I expect a model to be about 80 percent correct,” Tubbs says. “To make the other 20 percent correct, I talk to drivers and supervisors. They will know, for example, if I've routed them onto a congested street between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Tuesday. I may have routed a truck into an industrial yard before it opens. So I alter the model to accommodate the requirements that only the drivers and supervisors will know about.”

Eyeballing Routes

On the other hand, GIS can be useful without routing software, according to the city of Ann Arbor, Mich. “Ours is a simple system. It cannot route for maximum efficiency like a routing software,” says Tom McMurtrie, coordinator of recycling services with the city's solid waste department. Nevertheless, Ann Arbor finds routing efficiencies by “eyeballing” GIS maps, then manually looking at the geographic layout to determine where overlaps exist.

“For commercial collections, we look at specific dumpster locations, McMurtrie says. “In the case of residential, we look at blocks of customers and make adjustments accordingly.”

McMurtrie credits the city's success in retaining its solid waste collection work — for which the department must now compete with private haulers — to “eyeball” routing with GIS plus upgrades in truck automation. To date, the city has won two five-year contracts over private competition.

Chances are large operations will find such eyeballing difficult, if not impossible. Yet for Ann Arbor's collection operations that use just seven trucks per day to collect residential waste and three to four trucks per day to handle commercial and multi-family dumpsters, the system works.

Higher Octane Marketing

Beyond routing, GIS has begun to prove itself in helping waste companies improve their marketing capabilities.

Waste Industries, for example, recently has begun to handle marketing assignments for a number of the company's branches. To do this, Tubbs purchases commercially available data listing prospects for individual cities, imports that data into the company's GIS program and compares the locations of existing customers with prospects.

“I group prospects based on distances from landfills, transfer stations and offices,” Tubbs says. “Then I code the prospects based on their location.”

“A” prospects are close to existing customers, while “D” prospects are far away. Waste Industries' marketing department then develops pricing for these prospects based on their distance from disposal options and branch offices, and sales people make the calls.

Asset and Work Management

Recent improvements to software further enable GIS to contribute to other applications important to the waste industry, according to Steve Benner, ESRI director of strategic accounts.

Large waste companies literally own thousands of assets, including trucks and maintenance facilities, offices, transfer stations, landfills, and residential and commercial trash containers. GIS can be used to track and manage maintenance for such large numbers of assets, Benner says. “Today, you can embed GIS into these work management systems and create visual maps of what needs to be done.”

A company also can use GIS to route technicians to maintain equipment at transfer stations and landfills, and to repair or replace containers.

Why go to the trouble?

To avoid inefficiencies, Benner says. A recent project for the city of San Diego Street Division offers an analogy to the size of the problem large waste companies may face, he explains.

San Diego's Street Division maintains about 1.3 million objects — streets, street signs, traffic signals, culverts, storm drains, street lights, and so on. To help manage this work, the city purchased SAP, and ESRI currently is loading data to represent these assets in a GIS database that will complement the SAP work management system by mapping color-coded assets. By studying the map, the division hopes to find more economical ways to organize its maintenance work.

In addition to helping map assets, Benner believes GIS can map infrastructure within facilities such as landfills. So, should the Environmental Protection Agency call a waste company about chemical wastes that are detected in a housing complex that the agency suspects are coming from the waste company's landfill, GIS can help company geologists and engineers investigate the problem. GIS can produce a visual representation of the site where bore samples will be taken and can model underground features based on soil densities, he says.

Not As Difficult As It Sounds

To achieve the benefits of GIS, it may sound like a company needs an expert in information technology (IT). This was absolutely true five years ago, but the landscape is changing.

Historically, key business database tools, such as Oracle, have been unable to store spatial data: map points and shapes related to each other in space. GIS systems, as a result, operated more or less as proprietary systems.

“In the past five years, these business databases have begun to accept, store and manipulate spatial data,” Benner says. “This has given IT managers the ability to query databases about the relationships among spatial data.”

Additionally, software has been rewritten so that users can embed GIS into new database software.

“These developments have made it possible for GIS to work in the background inside mainstream applications such as ERP systems and Customer Relationship Management systems,” Benner says. “In other words, when you come to work in the morning, you can start up your computer using a primary ERP system.

“Suppose a customer calls and complains that no one has picked up the trash today,” he continues. “You can simply type in the address and the system will call up a GIS map showing the customer's location and the location of the closest truck route.”

For many companies, getting to this point still may be a complex task left to IT managers. But recent GIS improvements make it easier to manage such tasks today than ever before. And the benefits for waste managers that use these systems is that the results are picture perfect.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor.