Smooth Operators

ON A LONELY ROAD in central Ohio, a driver for Rumpke Consolidated Cos. Inc. was going about his daily route when a tire edged off the pavement, throwing the truck off balance. The driver overcorrected and the truck flipped over, coming to rest in a ditch. When police arrived on the scene, they immediately called the Cincinnati-based company to confirm that it was a Rumpke vehicle.

Using global positioning system (GPS) technology, the company was able to confirm that one of its trucks had been stuck in a single location for more than 20 minutes. Thankfully, the driver was okay, and the company quickly resumed its operations.

GPS technology is a worldwide system based on data from 24 satellites and their ground stations. Among other things, the technology is able to pinpoint the locations of items such as trucks and other pieces of equipment. First developed by the U.S. Department of Defense for military operations, GPS is now widely used in other government applications and by private companies and individuals.

The data gathered by GPS has allowed companies to maximize their efficiencies and save money. Companies can keep exact records of their fleet's activities, which can provide important information in settling customer disputes or, in Rumpke's case, if an accident has occurred.

Increasingly, GPS technology is becoming as much a part of the waste industry as bins and compactors. Among other applications, waste companies use GPS to track their collection vehicles, collect data on their customers and optimize their route efficiency. GPS data can also be fed into geographic information systems (GIS) mapping technology, which allows managers to compare several “data layers” that can be helpful in charting trends over time.

“Most of the technological changes in electronics and navigational aids, including GPS — both on its own and combined with route software programs, are having a major effect on making our companies substantially more efficient,” says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington. “With less truck time comes less emissions, less chances for accidents and more efficiencies.”

Corporate Testing

Although proprietary GPS systems may differ in appearance and interface, most systems operate in similar ways. Waste companies install GPS units on their trucks, bulldozers or other heavy equipment. The units send both worker-entered data and geographic coordinates via satellite to a computer-based system back in the office. There, supervisors can log onto a Web site, where factors like the number of vehicles operating, the locations and length of stops, the amount of waste collected or dumped and vehicle speed can all be determined, recorded and even mapped, if the GPS system has incorporated GIS capabilities.

Many waste companies are using GPS in some capacity, although the technology is by no means universal. Companies such as Houston-based Waste Management (WM) are conducting internal research and pilot GPS programs.

Republic Services, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is using GPS technology on a test basis in some markets as well. “Our intent is to determine if it is possible to use the technology to enhance the efficiency of our routing,” says spokesman Will Flower. “We are also using GPS technology at some landfills — again on a test basis — to measure productivity and to accurately record the placement of waste.”

Although GPS has been used more widely to achieve routing efficiencies, the practice is gaining currency in landfill applications as well. WM's landfill in Tullytown, Pa., is using GPS for grade control and compaction for density. “It helps them improve their performance by looking at the results on a daily and weekly basis,” says company spokesperson Lynn Brown.

In addition to controlling the grade of the working face and achieving better compaction, some landfill managers use GPS to reduce soil cover and preserve remaining capacity. Others use the technology to monitor landfill gas and groundwater. “GPS has forensic value, and it helps the landfill manager to determine how quickly their landfill is filling up,” says Ed Repa, director of environmental programs for NSWMA.

Rumpke, for its part, is testing GPS in several pilot projects. About a year ago, for example, the company installed 75 phone-based GPS units from Nextel (now Sprint Nextel, Reston, Va.) on trucks in its central Ohio division. In addition to being able to confirm that one of its vehicles was in an accident, the company has already achieved other benefits from using GPS. “We're seeing how much of this information we truly need and how much we need to spend to meet the need,” says Kevin Downey, director of hauling for Rumpke.

Commonly, waste companies combine GPS technology with other standard equipment, such as on-board scales or routing software. In Markham, Ontario, Canada, Miller Waste Systems is running a Loadman GPS system manufactured by Creative Microsystems, Renton, Wash., on six trucks. The GPS units are attached to on-board scales, allowing waste managers to accurately gauge their container weights and determine disposal costs in real time.

“If we know how much the can weighs, we know how much we'll charge the customer,” says Tim Cleveland, Miller's industrial and commercial supervisor.

Governing Tool

Although GPS is not foolproof, state and local governments have also achieved efficiencies using GPS. Recently, the San Diego Environmental Services Department implemented a GPS-based mapping system that allowed the city to reroute its fleet of about 185 garbage and recycling trucks.

City officials say that they have saved more than $670,000 since the program was implemented in 2004, and the city is also now tracking factors such as vehicle speed and locations. According to city reports, the rerouting effort reduced the miles traveled by municipal collection trucks by 900 miles per day or approximately 235,000 miles annually, which also saved on fuel costs.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Washington, had initially questioned the new system because of its employee watchdog element. But the city countered that the GPS data protects employees from false customer complaints. “This system is a lot more efficient now,” says Elmer Heap, director of the Environmental Services Department. “It costs the general fund less money.”

In King County, Wash., GPS units have been installed in nearly 200 waste vehicles. County officials are now working with a systems analyst to determine how best to recover the investment.

The average cost per vehicle to implement the new system was about $2,200, including $800 for labor and $1,400 for parts. However, the county's action resulted in a labor union lawsuit, which argued that the GPS system could be used to punish employees who stray from their appointed routes, even if they have good reasons to do so, such as traffic or obstacles. The county has responded that it has no intention of doing so.

In Massachusetts, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is participating in a government mapping initiative, called MassGIS, that uses both GPS and GIS technology to map land uses and environmental factors. DEP has created a Solid Waste Facility Data Layer that includes the locations of landfills, transfer stations and combustion facilities.

Going forward, the waste industry will have to work with manufacturers to iron out the kinks that still exist in the technology. The accuracy of GPS still varies depending on the model, the number of satellites available and other factors. “The fact is that most GPS systems are not true real time — they are often 10, maybe 15 minutes behind,” says one manufacturer representative. “If you're running freight trucks, that's fine, but if you're running waste trucks, you could have a hard time [in case of a dispute].” A waste company officer states that the new GPS system required “a lot of legwork” to set up and train employees on.

Clearly, the waste industry has embraced GPS as a useful technology worth exploring further, but the industry is still examining ways to make the most of it. “It's really going to be the future of the industry,” Tim Cleveland says. “In this business, we have trucks, labor and disposal, and GPS addresses all three of them.”

Kim O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.