Time for Technology

Waste industry vendors and observers have been promoting the operational efficiencies available from technology while bemoaning its slow pace of adoption by private and public solid waste operations since the 1990s. For years, waste managers feared that cash outlays for technology would diminish resources available for acquisitions as they built business plans around consolidation.

Flush municipal coffers can provide jobs aplenty in managing and collecting trash. However, today's emerging strategy is relying on operational efficiencies and labor-saving management to produce profits and preserve municipal jobs. In short, the benefits of technology now match what waste managers want. And technical staffs along with high-tech systems subsequently are springing up in companies and municipalities across North America.

A New Breed of Employee

At age 38, Christopher Hubbard, a vice president at Casella Waste Systems Inc., Rutland, Vt., has never thrown a trash bag into a truck in his life. But that's not his job. In charge of information systems and technologies, Hubbard's goal is to make collection more profitable. “One thing that has changed in the industry is that there are more technically savvy and aggressive information managers in the business,” he says. “We are beginning to convince the industry that we can make technology work [and] that there is a big value in collecting information.”

Under Hubbard's direction, Casella is implementing a multi-stage technology plan that could lead to full automation. For five years, Hubbard has focused on consolidating the company's billing and financial technologies. He began the process by installing a financial reporting system from J.D. Edwards, Denver, and a billing package from Soft-Pak Financial Systems, Newton, Mass.

In phase one of Hubbard's plan, billing data fed the financial reporting system, while transaction data from hauling, landfill, transfer stations and materials recovery facilities (MRFs) were transmitted back to the billing program.

Two years ago, Hubbard pushed the process of technology consolidation down to the transaction level. After years of acquisitions, Casella had assembled local operating units with a hodgepodge of 12 different scale packages. “We had to integrate these systems into billing,” Hubbard says. “But developing 12 different interfaces was unrealistic.”

Hubbard's team evaluated the 12 scale platforms and decided that a system that could log trucks in and out, send data into the billing system, track the sources of arriving materials, and help maintain material inventories best fit the company's requirements for automated scale houses.

With a system from PC Scale, Oxford, Pa., Casella's operators now do not need to key scale house weights into the billing system. Instead, the data automatically flow from both inbound and outbound trucks. The system also helps Casella to manage its material inventories.

As trucks arrive at a MRF, for example, the scale house system records deliveries of loose tonnage of newspaper, fiber, plastic, aluminum, glass and other materials. As the materials are baled or prepared for sale, an operator records estimated weights of processed units. If an average bale of newspaper weighs 1,500 pounds and the MRF makes 10 bales, 15,000 pounds are added to the finished goods inventory and deducted from loose tonnage.

When a MRF ships finished materials, the scale house system enables managers to check the weights of outgoing materials against estimated inventory weights, make a deduction and update the weight estimates for various materials.

“In this way, our system [including people and technology] is always learning and refining itself,” Hubbard says. “The system gives us a complete loose tonnage and finished goods inventory, so we can look at what our actual production is. We also can evaluate changes in the incoming and outgoing product mix.”

As of November 2002, the new scale system had been implemented in 98 percent of the company's facilities, including at landfills, transfer stations and materials recovery facilities. So Hubbard now is turning his attention to on-board truck technologies, such as automated route sheets, vehicle tracking, collecting productivity data and route optimization. It's too early to tell if the company is ready to move to full automation. But, Hubbard acknowledges, “I would like to see it go in that direction.”

Transactions and Traffic

Similarly, Republic Services has begun to standardize its scale houses. Scales are tied to company operating systems. Mark Clinker, director of landfill and transfer station operations, says automated scales are customer service devices that do more than speed and manage transactions. Scale systems, he says, can help to manage landfill traffic.

“We look at scale data to determine peak times and slow times and to make sure our equipment complement is appropriate,” he explains. “We also are trying to think outside the box. In the future, for example, we may be able to use this information to offer specials for slow time, when we need traffic.”

Recently, Clinker began experimenting with hydrostatic fixed scales, again with customer service in mind. “Some of our sites have problems with power surges, lightning strikes and wet environments,” he says. “Hydrostatic scales cost about the same as electronic scales, but they require much less maintenance. Water, lighting, power surges, dirt, all the things that affect an electronic load cell don't affect a hydrostatic load cell.”

The goal is to keep scales running and to keep the trucks moving through the landfill. To date, Republic has installed hydrostatic scales from Emery Winslow, Seymour, Conn., in three of its landfills and currently is monitoring their performance.

Republic also is taking opportunistic advantage of on-board scale technology. “Like other companies, we want to manage costs,” says Will Flower, Republic's vice president of communications. “We use technology where it will do that.”

A handful of Republic's 146 hauling companies employ on-board scales. In Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for example, All Service, one of Republic's largest operating units, installed its first Vulcan on-board scale on a commercial front-end loader in 1998. Today, All Service has equipped eight front-end loaders with scales manufactured by Stress Tek, Seattle.

According to Hunter Varnedoe, All Service's operations manager, on-board scale systems are vital to managing a South Florida waste operation. “At $80 per ton, disposal costs in this area are roughly triple the national average,” he says. “We use the scales to audit individual accounts. This enables us to make adjustments when a customer's situation changes.

“We also use the data we get from auditing accounts to check our estimates when competing for new customers,” Varnedoe continues. “Good information on weights tells us how low we can go and still make money, while covering the costs of disposal.”

In Canada, Groupe Gaudreau doesn't want on-board scales to slow operations, so it is experimenting with a new version of weigh-in-motion technology manufactured by Xactec Technologies, Montreal and Quebec City, Canada.

Groupe Gaudreau, based in Victoriaville about 100 miles east of Montreal, operates a fleet of 75 collection trucks, including 35 commercial front loaders. To test the value of on-board scales, the company has installed scales on one front loader.

“Landfill costs are still not very high in our area, and we don't intend to bill customers with the scale,” says Jean Claude Roy, company administrative director. Instead, the company's goal of the scales is to evaluate logistics, in lieu of the typical auditing functions. “By getting the proper weights, we can make better routing decisions,” Roy says.

This makes sense in light of the great distances Groupe Gaudreau operations cover. “We have routes 300 miles from our office, with just a few containers,” Roy says. By evaluating the weight of material collected at these locations, the company hopes rerouting will ensure that trucks traveling long distances will cover all customers, as well as end up with full loads so that they are operating as efficiently as possible.

Service and Teaching

More conventional collection operations, on the other hand, are looking to software makers to improve productivity with routing systems. The municipal solid waste department of Olathe, Kan., recently used a system by RouteSmart Inc., Columbia, Md., to reroute 28,000 residential stops. The new routes began in June 2002.

In comparing the new routes from June to Sept. 2002 to the company's collection performance from June to Sept. 2001 before rerouting, Ted Payne, city geographic information system (GIS) analyst, says the city realized a 4.9 percent increase in customers and a 4.1 percent increase in tonnage collected. Despite the increased workload, the use of overtime hours by the department's 14 residential drivers decreased by 17 percent. “This was something tangible that shows that both the software and the plan work,” Payne says.

A similar routing system allowed Fairfax County, Va.'s solid waste department to reduce collection trucks from 16 to 15 — despite the addition of 2,000 homes to the customer base. Since the implementation, the county has continued to tweak routes to accommodate minor changes in the customer base. According to Brendan Ford, application development specialist with the county's GIS department, the routing system “definitely speeds up these tasks, although it doesn't have the huge impact of a major system reorganization.”

Fairfax County has been using its routing system supplied by RouteSmart since 1997 and has implemented training for the system through another technological package. “When we first evaluated [the system], I was the only person who knew how to use it,” Ford says. “It became my job to train and support the use of the system by the refuse department staff.”

Consequently, Ford began to rely on a thin client system running on a Citrix server. This allows the routing coordinator in the solid waste department to use a computer called a thin client to connect to a network Citrix server, which actually contains the operating system, application software and stored data, he explains. A thin client actually is an inexpensive, slimmed down desktop computer with limited software and storage capabilities. The Citrix server handles processing tasks and delivers data to the screen of the thin client.

“[The server] enables GIS professionals to manage and take care of data and background tasks related to the operating system and software applications,” Ford says. “In addition, I can use this system to train people in different county departments in the use of software applications.”

Recently, for example, an operator in the solid waste department e-mailed Ford a question about using the routing software. Ford answered by logging onto the server from his office, while the operator logged on from her office. “As we talk on the phone, we see the same images on our screens,” Ford says. “I can take control of the session. I can move the mouse on both of our screens and show her the procedure. From a support point of view, [the system] is invaluable.”

Whether employees are like Fairfax County's Ford or his private sector counterpart Hubbard from Casella, both represent the new breed of technology professional working in the solid waste industry today. Both are applying technology to the task of helping management control costs and, in some cases, to boost profits. And by marshalling the available systems, technology may finally begin to achieve its promise to the solid waste industry — from the scale house to the accounting office.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.