Good Clean Fun

Good Clean Fun

Sanitation crews work around the clock to make sure that the hedonism in Las Vegas takes place in a clean environment.

Welcome to Waste Expo 2009 in Las Vegas. As a show attendee, you are one of nearly 40 million people who will visit the region this year. (Incidentally, this is not Las Vegas proper. The city is actually three miles north of the Convention Center and the Las Vegas Strip, which are in unincorporated areas of Clark County.)

The Las Vegas Strip, as you know or will soon discover, sells fun: gambling, food, entertainment and conventions. Not surprisingly, officials here take selling fun very seriously.

For example, when President Obama criticized companies that accepted bailout money and then threw parties in Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, called a press conference to take the president to task. He also sent Obama a letter complaining that his remarks had harmed the tourist business in Las Vegas.

Part of the business of selling fun in Las Vegas is cleaning up the mess that the visitors leave behind. Last year, Clark County's visitors, residents and businesses generated 2.2 million tons of solid waste. Republic Services of Southern Nevada, a division of Phoenix-based Republic Services, cleaned up after them.

Vegas' Sanitation Department

Republic acquired its Southern Nevada division, formerly Silver State Disposal, in 1997. The relationship between Silver State/Republic and the jurisdictions in the region date back to the 1960s. Since that time, Silver State/Republic has held exclusive franchises for residential, commercial and permanent roll-off/industrial waste collection and disposal in unincorporated Clark County and the cities of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson, all of which are in the county.

The company serves, more or less, as the sanitation department for these jurisdictions and is responsible for building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary to meet its contractual responsibilities. Unlike cities and counties in the eastern United States, which usually maintain their own sanitation departments, jurisdictions in the West typically negotiate long-term contracts with private firms for waste management and recycling services.

Generally, Republic's contracts in Clark County say the firm will pick up residential trash twice a week and recycling every other week while providing drop-off sites for hazardous household waste and electronic waste.

One of the more interesting provisions in the contracts requires the company to allow residential customers to dump their trash free of charge at one of the company's three transfer stations. “This policy was instituted back in the 1970s to reduce desert dumping, which was a big problem,” says Bob Coyle, vice president for public affairs and government relations for Republic Services of Southern Nevada. “The policy has worked well. Desert dumping is still a problem, but not as big a problem.”

Republic Services' contracts with jurisdictions in the region have terms of 20 years. Why so long? That's because Republic Services has made huge capital investments to construct the infrastructure necessary to manage the region's waste.

For example, Coyle estimates that the three transfer stations constructed and owned by Republic Services in Clark County would cost as much as $150 million to replace. Other capital components owned and operated by Republic Services in the region include the Apex Regional Landfill in Clark County and a recycling plant in North Las Vegas.

Those capital investments, of course, are in addition to the spending required to acquire and replenish fleets of 220 residential trucks, 104 commercial trucks and 90 roll-off trucks. The residential and commercial trucks have McNeilus bodies on Autocar chasses. The roll-offs use a variety of body manufacturers, all on Autocar chasses.

No Sleeping in Vegas

Las Vegas never sleeps. The casinos and the restaurants in them are open all night. Therefore, the trash just keeps on coming.

So the trash trucks run all night, and Republic's commercial fleet is on the road seven days a week.

Most of the trash collected passes through one of the company's three transfer stations in the area, all of which operate 24/7. The busiest is the Cheyenne Transfer Station in North Las Vegas, about six miles north of downtown. Cheyenne handles 5,000 tons per day and is permitted for 9,000 tons.

The Sloan Transfer station, 19 miles south of downtown Las Vegas, handles 1,500 tons per day. Over in Henderson, the third transfer station handles 1,200 tons per day. Both Sloan and Henderson have capacities of 6,000 tons per day.

Each of the transfer facilities provides parking for off-duty collection trucks. The transfer stations also house the company's maintenance operations.

The waste travels from the transfer stations to the Apex Regional Landfill. Located 25 miles north of downtown Las Vegas, Apex receives 9,500 tons per day, six days per week.

Striving for Improvement

Working together, Clark County and Republic regularly tinker with their operations. A couple of years ago, for example, they began searching for ways to increase the residential recycling rate from 3 percent to 5 percent. Under the current approach, residents separate recyclables and deposit them into one of three 12-gallon milk crates: one for paper, one for plastics and metal, and one for glass.

However, the county and Republic are currently conducting a pilot single-stream recycling program in 5,200 homes across 16 communities. This required the purchase of 95-gallon carts and automated trucks.

The pilot program will compare the results of three collection routines. The first is the current routine of collecting trash twice per week and recycling every other week. The second routine collects trash twice per week and recycling once per week. The final routine collects trash once per week and recycling once per week.

As most communities have discovered, commingled recycling substantially raises diversion rates. The pilot program is showing diversion rates from 23 percent to more than 30 percent. Coyle says it is too early to judge which of the three routines will perform best in terms of costs.

Recyclables collected in the Las Vegas region from residential, commercial, and construction and demolition waste go to a material recovery facility (MRF) that receives about 200 tons per day. However, the facility is permitted for 600 tons per day, so there is plenty of capacity left to handle the increases that will eventually come from a new recycling routine.

The Human Equation

As you might guess from Mayor Goodman's tiff with the president, Las Vegas officials and businesses will go to great lengths to maintain good relations with visitors. That includes keeping the place clean. To that end, Republic Services spends quite a bit of time training drivers and emphasizing the importance of their job to the community.

That effort has recently produced a surprising result. Drivers from Republic Services of Southern Nevada have earned at least one driver of the year award from the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA) in each of the last three years. “It's unheard of,” Coyle says. “There are more than 130,000 trash truck drivers in the U.S.”

Nevertheless, in 2007, Cleotha Williams of Republic Services of Southern Nevada received the EIA's Commercial Driver of the Year award. In 2008, Jerome Overton and Rick Lial, also with Republic Services, received the EIA's commercial and residential driving awards, respectively. And this year, John Thomas of Republic Services won the EIA's Industrial Driver of the Year award.

Lial's entry was accompanied with e-mail recommendations from 200 customers. Among them was a note from a woman who said that her pet parrot always looks forward to Rick's arrival and calls out his name.

In Vegas, the waste management system runs so well, even the pets take notice.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

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Material Facts

Republic Services of Southern Nevada collects more than 2 million tons of residential, commercial and industrial solid waste per year. The total tonnage includes green waste and bulk items, which are collected with the weekly trash. In 2008, the company collected 2,199,637 tons of waste and 47,464 tons of recyclable materials. Here's the break down:

  • 515,000 residential customers, 210 routes, 740,260 tons of waste.

  • 21,000 commercial customers, 108 routes, 612,681 tons of waste.

  • 3,000 roll-off/industrial customers, 80 routes, 846,696 tons of waste.