Rochester Gets A Lift From Automation

Rochester's symptoms were classic: an aging fleet of collection trucks, rising landfill tipping fees and escalating worker's compensation costs.

The prescription: semi-automated collection.

In 1992, Rochester, N.Y., switched from twice-per-week manual backyard residential collection to 71,400 single-family households to once-per-week curbside semi-automated collection (see table on page 48). Rochester decided to evaluate alternative collection methods to help control costs.

Due to dramatic increases in tipping fees, annual household fees had risen 171 percent - from $86 per household per year in 1982 to $233 per year. Since the switch to semi-automation, rates have risen only 3 percent.

Geographically, Rochester is typical of many of the nation's older urban areas: narrow streets and mature trees; dense neighborhoods with on-street parking; and approximately 3,000 single-family households located on the left side of one-way streets.

Cruel winters contribute to the inconvenience. Rochester receives an average of 100 inches of snowfall per year, and severe weather reduces the collection crews' productivity while adding to injury rates and refuse weights.

Prior to shifting to semi-automation with a Toter wheeled cart system, Rochester estimated that it was paying to dispose of approximately 12 percent more weight - an increase directly attributed to wet wastes set out on the curb.

In May 1989, Rochester, in conjunction with neighborhood associations, initiated a one-year pilot program to test a new type of residential collection service. The pilot included distribution of 96-gallon wheeled carts with hinged lids to 700 single-family households and, retrofitted rear-loader trucks with hydraulic tippers.

Based on a survey conducted after the pilot's completion, city staff attributed high customer satisfaction to quality-durable containers; an exception policy for physically-challenged residents (approximately 1.5 percent of the pilot area); and a thorough multi-media public education campaign which included high community involvement.

Rochester also surveyed pilot program staff, who reported improved working conditions and said they felt more protected from injury with the cart and semi-automated system.

However, some operators were concerned that the new system might mean a loss of jobs.

The shift in labor demands from manual collection to semi-automated did force Rochester to dissolve 26 positions within 18 months of implementation, but all were eliminated through attrition or interdepartmental transfers negotiated with the union.

Initially, city management resisted automation because the manual method was not obviously flawed. However, successful internal and external education campaigns along with the year-long pilot program demonstrated semi-automation's long-term benefits.

Pilot participants' advocation of the system, coupled with involving the community in the decisions, also aided in successful full-scale implementation.

Productivity Boosts With manual collection, operators lifted approximately six tons of residential waste per day. Low-entry cabs and side-loading hoppers were designed to minimize the amount of physical labor.

Semi-automation has reduced walking requirements by 50 percent - from 13 miles to 6.6 miles per operator per day. However, Rochester's many one-way streets limited the productivity-enhancing potential of the system.

The city conducted ergonomic and time motion studies to determine the impact of the operator walking to the left side of one-way streets to roll out, tip and return the carts. This routine represented a 138 percent increase in time demands - from 46.2 seconds per stop for normal semi-automation to 110 seconds per stop on one-way streets.

However, Rochester's semi-automation reduced worker's compensation costs by 52 percent. In addition, it reduced the amount of days lostto injuries from 1,948 to 698 a year.

Public Outreach Lou Guilmette, Rochester's refuse manager, stressed the importance of a public outreach campaign involving citizen advisory groups as liaisons between residents and the solid waste management division. Building partnerships provided a vital framework for community participation which helped build and support acceptance for system changes.

Presentations, including hands-on demonstrations, were conducted in more than 50 neighborhood associations. Pilot program participants gave testimonials of the program's success.

Some of the most important points included: * same day collection of residential waste, recyclables and bulky waste;

* the system's ability to change under special circumstances, such as physically challenged residents;

* assurance that new carts were high quality and durable;

* providing a 65-gallon cart option for small quantity residential waste generators or residents with limited storage capacity; and

* option to receive and additional cart for high quantity generators.

In addition, frequent public service announcements were broadcast on radio and on Rochester's public access television channel.

Rochester completes a community services report each month categorizing the calls received about the program.

Complaints and service requests are tracked separately. Customer service representatives follow-up to assess the resident's satisfaction with the department's resolution. Each resident who calls the department is provided with a community service report.

Is Automation For You? Semi- or fully-automated collection has been demonstrated to reduce costs and improve efficiency in many communities.

However, these methods are not for every community. Certain factors can affect the decision to increase automation: * High worker's compensation claims.

* Large amounts of yard waste.

If yard waste is collected separately, automation can dramatically reduce the potential for worker injury. If it is unfeasible to automate all collections, consider automating yard waste, which is typically the heaviest waste material.

* Narrow streets. The space required for the carts lifted by an automated hydraulic arm will vary depending on the model of the arm and its location (side-loader or rear-loader). In addition, many manufacturers can customize hydraulic arms. Although rear-loading, semi-automated trucks will minimize the effect of narrow streets, automated collection may be impossible on extremely narrow roadways.

* One-way streets. One-way streets can be a problem unless residents can be required to place all carts on one side of the street. Some communities have received special waivers to drive the opposite way down one-way streets, while others are using routing techniques to minimize the need for waivers.

* On-street parking. Maximizing the potential of fully-automated trucks requires direct access to carts. Heavy on-street parking can restrict access to carts and require the operator to leave the cab which adds collection time.

* Steep hills. Steep hills may decrease the automation's efficiency. However some experts indicate that slopes of less than 45 degrees will not severely impact automation or semi-automation.

* Bad weather conditions contribute to increased RSW tonnages and disposal expenses.

* Mature and/or low hanging trees and low power lines. Again, due to the area required to use a hydraulic lifting arm, low-hanging trees and power lines must be considered.

* Increasing pressure to be competitive with the private sector.

Rochester gives the following tips to municipalities that are considering automation or semi-automation: * be honest with city officials, citizens, employee unions and labor unions;

* deal with labor unions long before an implementation date has been set;

* educate and provide adequate time for everyone to adjust to system changes;

* automate in problem areas first.

Rochester started its pilot in some of the lowest income neighborhoods with significant RSW collection challenges. This strategy provided a catalyst for interest in other neighborhoods, which were jealous that they had not been selected for the new, widely-publicized program; * get buy-in from city management, citizen advisory groups, labor force/union representatives and the public;

* use ergonomic data to convince stakeholders that changes will positively impact working conditions and likely reduce worker's compensation insurance; and

* consider attrition and incentive pay as methods for obtaining labor buy-in.

Tales From Other Cities Complimenting Rochester, the Solid Waste Association of America's (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., collection practices study surveyed 20 communities that have increased automation. The total households served in these communities range from 4,300 in Gottstown, N.H., to 315,130 in Indianapolis, Ind.

These towns gave these recommendations on increasing automation: * understand current collection costs and projected savings;

* provide good background information (projected cost savings, improvement in services, increased efficiency) to elected officials in order for them to make informed decisions;

* ensure there is a policy to handle overflow (Productivity decreases and costs increase when an overflow truck must follow the automated vehicle);

* consider automating yard waste along with residential collection;

* demonstrate the automated collection system to residents so they understand the system and its costs;

* don't sacrifice truck and container quality based on the initial price (look instead at the life-cycle costs);

* if the service area has several alleys, consider contracting a landscaper to clear alleys of trees and bushes;

* consider a phased implementation of replacement containers on a rotational basis;

* prepare elected officials to expect criticism immediately following change (also expect a large influx of complaints, but expect them to drop off dramatically after two to six months); and

* provide supervisors with customer service training.

Also, don't let the possible expense of purchasing new trucks dissuade you from increasing the automation of your residential solid waste and/or recycling system. Think of the potential benefits: * reduced labor costs (most fully-automated trucks can be operated by one person),

* reduced injuries (operators are not lifting containers) and

* increased efficiency (operators do not have to spend the time manually collecting garbage).

Increased automation does not necessarily require the purchase of an entire new truck fleet. As an alternative, semi-automated trucks can be bought directly from manufacturers, or existing trucks can be retrofitted for semi-automated collection.