Weighty Issues

Perhaps it's because of my own lack of understanding, but I still have problems with some industry standards. To those snickering knowingly behind their hands at my confusion, I say, "Tell me this!"

Why do you pay for disposal based on the refuse's weight instead of its volume? If a landfill is a large hole or space filled with wastes, wouldn't it make more sense to charge for the space occupied by the refuse rather than by how much it weighs? Does 25 cubic yards of rock take up more space than 25 cubic yards of feathers?

When I went to my local landfill with my pickup truck, they charged me by the size of my vehicle, full or not. The refuse truck in front of me was charged by the load's net weight. Why?

Charging by customers' weight or volume also has reached into the residential side. In an effort to encourage recycling and waste reduction, some communities are trying a weight- or volume-based collection system.

Some feel that this is a negative way to encourage recycling by charging only for the unrecycled material, using weight or volume as the parameters.

Furthermore, until recently, a legally approved method of weighing residents' material was not available. In the interim, volume-based collection began to generate interest. Taking volume-based collection to the extreme requires a method of exchanging different size containers as the residents needs changed. It would also require a complicated billing system.

Because of these potential problems, some opted for a more practical fixed-limit fee, such as $10 per month for a specific sized container (32-gallon, 64-gallon, etc). The charge, of course, was levied even if the container was half-empty. In addition, some systems allowed for overages, usually charging for tagged plastic bags.

The potential inequities are obvious. For example, if the hauler charges residents by volume and the landfill charges the hauler by weight, either party could be overcharged, depending on the disposed material's weight.

The problems created by a lack of a single standard for charging residents are growing larger.

Garbage weight presents another problem to our nation's roads. As with other overweight trucks, heavy-refuse vehicles are wearing out our streets and highways. Laws exist to punish those who drive overweight trucks, and, in many cases, they are vigorously applied.

Some of these laws, however, don't make a lot of sense. California's bridge formula bases legal loads for trucks on the distance from the center of the front axle to the center of the rear axle.

The laws are calculated considering the number of axles and specifies weights for each axle and each wheel. The intent, I gather, is to prevent any one wheel, axle or vehicle from damaging the road. I also understand that a weight diffused over a wider area is less punishing than one concentrated in a smaller area.

I do not understand, however, that wheels are less of a problem when they are 20 feet apart rather than 10 feet apart. Will I be any less flattened if the right rear tire is further from the right front tire?

Then, of course, there are the states where different standards apply.

Productivity is a key issue in our industry, but how do you know how you're doing, especially in relation to everyone else? Obviously, you would look at how much work is being performed in a specific time.

You would use measurements such as "man hours per ton collected, homes collected per day," or "containers collected per hour." The problem, once again, is a lack of standards.

These terms mean different things to different people. For instance, what is "work?" What is meant by "collected?" What is a "man hour?" And, for that matter, are all "hours" the same?

Is an apartment the same as an estate when counting "homes collected?" Is "collected" the same as driving by a house with nothing on the curb? When counting "containers per hour" is that in the hours when collection could have taken place, or does it include travel time, dumping time, delays, breakdowns, etc.?

I recently compiled statistics for a client concerning the amount of material recycled. Considering all these unanswered questions, I found that the statistics were basically meaningless.

I hope this column causes you to think or stimulates you in some way to react to these ideas. Agree or disagree, feel free to call or write to me.

At the very least, I think you will agree that this industry is long overdue in discussing the way we describe what we do, how we measure our activities, and how we are regulated.