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You've reached the end of the street. Now, would it be quicker and cheaper to make a right-hand turn or would a left-hand turn reduce the amount of back-tracking?

While this decision may seem insignificant and should be left to the route driver, the sum of these decisions might add up to thousands of dollars of wasted fuel and tires, excessive driver overtime and added equipment wear each year.

The current drive to find the most efficient ways to collect waste embraces several elements: technology, equipment and people. Because each community's needs are different and continue to change, every solid waste manager must discover the appropriate combination of ingredients.

A Cup of Technology Today's collection managers now have two high-tech tools to get a top-down view of their operations: geographic information systems (GIS) to calculate the optimum routing between two points, and global positioning systems (GPS), which can track the exact locations of trucks in real time.

In a GIS-based routing system, each customer's location is coded into a database. A street map of the service area either is coded into the system or is downloaded from a company- or Internet-based database system. The software then automatically calculates the shortest route between each stop. Service criteria, such as total number of stops and estimated weights per stop, can be programmed into the system.

The city of San Diego, for example, is building a new customer service system using GIS and additional routing software.

"We used GIS to plan our automated conversion program," says Charles Woolever, deputy environmental services director. "Because we weren't [historically charging] a fee for our service, we didn't have a reliable customer database. The city had invested in a county-wide GIS system, and we felt that we could build our own layers."

San Diego currently is divided into four operating divisions, and the software should help develop a new strategy. "We go in different directions from four operation stations [so that] we're not really concentrated in one area," Woolever says.

With the new system, Woolever "can divide the city into sectors, one for each day of the week," concentrating all of his equipment in one sector instead of operating out of four different locations.

"With the sector management approach, we'll be able to support the missed service requests from the previous day more easily and more cheaply," he adds.

The GIS system replaced the city's old mainframe computer system that required hand entry of customer data. "GIS allowed us to build a system, EPACS - Environmental Programs and Collection Systems," he explains. "Now, when you put in the address and click on 'add service request,' it tells you information such as the route driver and the day of the week. It makes it more efficient for the customer service operators."

However, while GIS finds the most efficient routing path, it has limitations: It cannot recognize barriers, congestion and physical restrictions that affect commercial routing.

Superior Services, Milwaukee, Wis., always is looking at technology to improve its collection efficiencies, although COO Paul sees the obvious limitations in computerized routing.

"When the computer can design a route that is more efficient than our best supervisors, then it finally will win the day. So far, the anomalies built into most communities - one way streets, alley pickups, bridges that the computer doesn't know about - make it almost impossible for the computer and the routing systems to beat a good supervisor," Jenks says. "It's IBM vs. the best chess master in the world. The machine can't beat the person as long as the person wants to play."

San Diego also is considering using wireless communication technology that includes GPS to alert field supervisors about its trucks' locations. "Part of our plan is to use wireless communications technology," Woolever says. "The city's police department upgraded its laptops, and the environmental services department was able to obtain the old units, which have been placed in eight supervisors' trucks. We'll use it to get the service request directly to the route supervisor. If a street has been missed and the supervisor finds out about it faster, he will be able to divert that truck before it goes to the landfill. And, at six miles per gallon, that should save a lot of fuel, not to mention overtime."

In addition to being more efficient Woolever says the new system should increase customer satisfaction.

"We're going to use Map Objects, which will show the supervisor the location of his equipment on a map," he says.

A Dash of Equipment In the push for efficiency and effectiveness, the type of equipment selected plays a major role in streamlining operations. For instance, in many cities, automation has revolutionized the collection of solid waste, recyclables and green waste. More waste collected in less time by fewer people results in lower costs and decreased worker's compensation claims.

However, fully automated collection does not always work, especially in congested urban neighborhoods. Some cities also have recognized that sending two or three trucks down the same road to separately collect recyclables and green waste is inefficient. Now, several communities are considering converting to co-collection using split containers.

The city of Columbus, Ohio, was one such community. Recognizing the difficulty in converting its entire community to full automation, the city is custom-fitting service programs into some of the more challenging areas.

"In 1998, we [automated the last manually collected] area, and it was last because it was very difficult to fully automate," says John Johnson, refuse collection division operations manager. "We have some historic areas, such as German village, that still has cobblestone streets and very tight and narrow streets and alleys."

Thus, the city now uses semi-automated collection for this area, as well as for its condominium communities.

To improve its solid waste and recyclables collection efficiency, Johnson is preparing a pilot program using split containers. "That is a joint process between us and our solid waste authority," he says. "We involve members of our community in most of our planning - bouncing it off of them before we proceed."

Meantime, several cities also recognize that not all discards fit into an automated cart. To handle bulky items such as couches, appliances and other materials, the city has started regularly scheduled bulky item collection programs.

Often these additional programs result from re-allocating resources from improved efficiencies in other areas. For example, the cost savings from Columbus' automation program allowed the city to expand its bulky item collection.

"We've reduced staff in those service areas, but increased service in other areas," Johnson says. "We collect bulk items weekly, rather than every two to three weeks. By making that change, we have been more efficient while increasing our service capacity to our customers."

With automation's savings, the city also has used some of automation's savings to hire people to clean up the areas around its large 300-gallon containers. "We have residents whose children place the trash on the ground instead of in the container," Johnson says. "By changing from two-man to one-person collections, we've been able to hire additional crews to clean up. That enhances the perception of our container program."

In the city and county of Denver, automated collection saved both staffing and dollars. "[During] the past two years we've placed more than 13,000, 100-gallon barrels with our residents," says Danamarie Schmitt, operations superintendent. "We've gained efficiencies, such as cutting our manual labor staff by eight employees. We estimate our savings to be about $200,000 annually, and we increased our efficiencies and reduced our manual collection."

Through automation, Denver has collected an additional 22,000 tons of trash, "and we see the difference in the street," Schmitt notes. "We collect residential trash and have a recycling program. We also just developed the LAP Program [Large item Pick-up], where we [more efficiently] collect bulky items."

Schmitt says the program uses juveniles in the sheriff department's detention program to "groom the alleys" the week before bulk pickup. "Then, the large item pickup service comes in, and then our sweeping program. We've really increased the cleanliness of our alleys as a result of this updated program," she says.

Nevertheless, manual collection can be cheaper than automation, in at least in one southern community. Columbus, Ga., uses inmate labor on the back of rear loaders.

"I know it sounds backward, but it still works," says Jack Aldridge, deputy director of public services. "We can't increase our costs further because of budget constraints. Because we use inmates, it has always been more inexpensive simply because we don't have the labor costs that other folks have."

Aldridge says that the inmates like the work, "because it gets them out on the trucks." And with two men on a truck, and the high-compaction units, Aldridge says he gets more stops than he would with a single man."

Every five years, the department bids out one quarter of the city then competitively compares it with their internal operations. "We want to stay competitive so that we can keep the business in house," Aldridge says.

Pour in Dedicated People Ultimately, people may be the single most important ingredient in the drive for collection efficiency.

"The driver or operator probably is more critical to the success of operational efficiency than the equipment or the program," says Superior Service's Paul Jenks. "They either can make it or break it, so we look at compensation systems that reward efficiencies. As much as anything, it's making your employees feel needed and part of the team."

For Jenks, it's a general attitude about how you treat people. "If you have your people working for you, they're as good as any equipment or routing program I've ever seen."

However, finding good people in today's economy can be a challenge. "You always need to invest in your workforce," Schmitt says. "With a booming economy in Denver, it's difficult to find people who want to throw trash. And, we're also competing for CDL (Commercial Driver's Licensed) operators. To be competitive, we have to look at the benefit package and the salaries we pay, and invest in continued training and promotion."

Customer satisfaction also is paramount, Woolever adds. "Customer satisfaction is No. 1. It doesn't really matter how cheap we are if they don't like us." Woolever says San Diego annually surveys its customers, and "for the past four years, we've ranked in the 90th percentile in customer satisfaction," he says.

For customers, there is no operation efficiency if their waste isn't picked up.

"Trash is a funny thing," Woolever continues. "People either are quiet about trash or they're upset. My predecessor used to say that most people think that the trash fairy comes and miraculously takes it all away. As long as it's gone, they're happy."