In this tale of two cities, different paths have led to a similar conclusion: automation may be the key to enhanced recycling collection.

Myth: "Special" collections, such as recyclables or green waste and occasional waste overages, can't be handled by automated vehicles.

Reality: They can and are.

Pioneers exist in every industry, and solid waste is no exception. Some communities are experimenting with automated trucks to collect green waste in biodegradable paper bags; others are considering specialized grabbers for brush.

Although automated refuse collection has reached into hundreds of communities, collecting recyclables using automated trucks and containers is relatively new.

Automated recyclables collection has been slow in coming for several reasons. For one thing, many communities currently collect recyclables in several small containers that do not lend themselves to automation.

Others, fearing high costs, have shied away from automation altogether. Still others remember a time when the recyclables markets that flourish today did not exist. Worse, they discovered their materials had to be near pristine to be acceptable at all.

Since then, recycled materials use has risen explosively and, in some cases, collecting recyclables has become commercially viable as well as environmentally beneficial.

However, many communities still view recycling as though they are collecting a new product.

The key is to think of it as collecting the same old material - in a different way. That way, recycling economics become a part of the total collection costs for the waste stream.

Adding those costs, proportionately, to each ton of refuse collected might help to make recycling less economically daunting.

In most ways, the city of Los Angeles has little in common with another, much smaller California city, Visalia. But they share one common trait: both are leading the way in automated recycling collection.

L.A.'s Pilot The City of Los Angeles launched its fully automated refuse collection program in 1991; the roll-out was completed in 1995.

Putting this into perspective, the program includes more than 1 million automated containers and recycling bins from manufacturers including Otto, Plastopan, Rehrig Pacific, Schaefer, Toter and Zarn.

Initially, recyclables were collected manually and sorted curbside. But, like other communities, Los Angeles is seeking ways to increase the quantity of materials recycled while reducing collection expenses. In fact, developing options for second generation recycling is a goal of Delwin Biagi, director of the Bureau of Sanitation.

As a result, the city has proposed a pilot program that will investigate the effectiveness of automating recyclables collection.

Enrique C. Zaldivar, an engineer in the Recycling and Waste Reduction Division of the Bureau of Sanitation, is developing the proposal. The city will be studying commingling recyclables, blue bags and various vehicles.

Ultimately, the city is seeking to reduce the costs of operation and to gradually concentrate recyclables into two streams (paper and other other materials), which will make automation feasible.

Currently, the city collects 4,000 to 6,000 tons of recyclable material per month from about 720,000 households. They use 153 trucks with Wayne Engineering bodies on White/GMC chassis.

With the current program, the homeowner separates the refuse into paper and other recyclables for manual collection once a week. Green waste and refuse are collected in automated containers by automated trucks.

Residents divide recyclables into several plastic boxes, which are dumped by hand into a multi-compartment vehicle. Although this makes the material more attractive for recyclable markets, it's time consuming. As more stable markets emerge, the recyclables could be commingled and still be marketed reliably.

The planned pilot program will test three basic container systems. The first is a 60- or 90-gallon container, undivided and collected by either a semi-automated or fully automated vehicle with an undivided body. This would require a single stream and would mean all recyclables, including paper, would be commingled in the same container and truck.

The homeowner would divide the waste stream into recyclables, green waste and refuse. Each would be collected separately, but the recyclables would be automated. Because of possible contamination, however, the price paid for the newsprint might be reduced with this system.

In the second system, residents would use an automated container for all recyclables except newspaper. The paper would be placed in blue bags, which would be set inside the container. This plan would lessen newsprint contamination and increase the value. Although homeowners would separate the waste stream into recyclables, paper, green waste and refuse, collection would require three trucks.

The third system would include an automated container divided into two equal parts, one for rigid recyclables and the other for paper. It would be collected by a horizontally split automated vehicle with a 60/40 divided body (60 percent for paper).

Here, the waste stream is divided into four parts: paper and other recyclables in one container, green waste in a second and refuse in the third. This system also would require three collection vehicles.

Each of these systems would be tested in 4,000 households, for a period of six to 12 months. The concept of lockable containers to prevent scavenging will also be explored.

Modest Size, Forward Thinking The City of Visalia, Calif., is located in the fertile central valley that produces much of the California's legendary agricultural products.

More than ten years ago, the City of Visalia automated its residential collection, replacing its rear-loading, multi-person vehicles. It offers twice-a-week service using 60-, 90-, and 350-gallon carts and fully automated Heil 7000 bodies on Peterbilt and White chassis.

Visalia's curbside recycling program was prompted by the 1989 California Integrated Waste Management Act (AB 939) and strong local support. Since Visalia had recently implemented automation, officials had to develop a system to collect recyclables, refuse and green waste that would use existing equipment and staff.

The new system had to be comparably productive, servicing 900 accounts each day; use one operator in each vehicle; and minimize the number of passes to lessen the impact on the streets and air quality. Finally, this new system had to be designed to meet AB 939 diversion goals (25 percent by 1995; 50 percent by 2000).

Staff considered a three-cart system with separate collections for waste, recyclables and green waste. This system was rejected because it would require additional staff, new or modified vehicles, additional carts and increased storage time for the city's homeowners.

Next, a RFP was issued for residential commingled recyclables collection and processing. Only one contractor responded, bidding $4.50 a month per household, not including green waste collection. This bid was considered too high.

The city's staff then joined with a local equipment representative to develop a co-collection system. This team designed and patented a 110-gallon split container with two 55-gallon sections.

An existing automated truck body was modified into two chambers with separate packing blades. Now, using one truck and one operator, the city could collect recyclables and refuse in a single container.

A pilot route began in 1992 which included:

* weekly curbside collection of solid waste and commingled residential recyclables in the 110-gallon split container; and

* weekly green waste collection, using the existing 90-gallon automated container.

The city used an automated truck modified with an upper and lower split packer body to co-collect the solid waste and recyclables. Green waste was picked up with the existing collection vehicles.

Following experimentation with different truck bodies and carts, the city began full implementation in 1994. Since then, Visalia has been converting approximately one route a month and anticipates that all 24 routes to be converted by early 1996.

According to a recent report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency, the combined estimated annual costs to operate the co-collection and the green waste collection programs, including tipping and processing fees, is approximately $14.28 per household per month. This is an increase of only 2 percent above the existing twice-a-week residential residential solid waste (RSW) collection system.

With the current co-collection and green waste collection systems, Visalia reportedly will be able to divert approximately 58 percent of its RSW stream.

In the future, the system's overall costs may even be reduced when contracts are re-negotiated with the recycling processor and when new (rather than retrofitted) co-collection vehicles are placed in service.

* I.P.L Products Ltd. Injection-molded U.S.D. wheeled carts; biocart for composting; "Corbi" waste paper system; blue box bottle/can collectors.Contact: Gaetan Bolduc. 120 Goddard Memorial Dr., Worcester, Mass. 01603. (800) 463-0270, ext. 354. Fax: (508) 831-1124.

* Otto Industries Inc. - Solid Waste Systems Division. All-In-One Collection System with divided carts, trucks and lifters; MSD multi-system family of carts; two- and three-cubic-yard commercial containers and lifters. Contact: Ron L. Cimmino, Vice President, 12700 General Dr., Charlotte, N.C. 410251. (704) 588-9191.

* Rehrig Pacific Co. 65- and 95-gallon roll-out carts. Contact: Bill Mashy, 4010 E. 26th St., Los Angeles, Calif., 90023. (800) 421-6244. Fax: (213) 269-8506. Customer Reference: Western Waste Industries, Van Chamy, 21061 S. Western Ave., Torrance, Calif. 90501. (310) 222-8517. Fax: (310) 212-7194.

* Ruckstell California Sales/City of Visalia, Calif. Refuse equipment and split containers. Contact: Richard Townley, P.O. Box 12543, Fresno, Calif. 93778. (209) 233-3277. Customer Reference: Bevers Disposal Service, Ron Bevers, P.O. Box 186, Ivanhoe, Calif. 93235. (209) 798-1096.

* Schaefer Systems. Injection-molded waste containers for curbside collection. Contact: Mike Knaub, Box 7009, Charlotte, N.C. 28687. (704) 588-2150. Fax: (704) 588-1862.

* Toter Inc. Roll-out, 32-, 64- and 96-gallon carts. Contact: Jim Pickett, 841 Meacham Rd., Statesville, N.C. 28677. (704) 872 8171. Fax: (704) 878-0734.

* Zarn Inc. Large part custom blow molding; four-wheel commercial containers; two-wheel refuse and recycling carts. Contact: John Price, 1001 N.E. Market St., Reidsville, N.C. 27320. (910) 349-3323.