Keeping It Clean

April 1, 2000

7 Min Read
Keeping It Clean

Nikki Swartz

WA: What are the key challenges facing collection managers today and how have you handled these challenges in your operations?

SY: Key challenges the city of Minneapolis face are personnel, - recruiting, training, motivating, retaining.

With Minneapolis' unemployment rate below 2.5 percent, recruiting is difficult. Finding qualified candidates also is a problem. We look for someone who has a commercial driver's license, is capable of performing the physically demanding job in harsh weather conditions and is customer-oriented. Currently, we want to improve our training in the areas of ergonomics and injury prevention, customer service and vehicle accidents.

If Minneapolis is to remain competitive, motivation must become a focus. Motivating personnel is an area that managers no longer take for granted. It used to be assumed that everyone was motivated to do a good job, however, the workforce has changed, and it's management's responsibility to sustain employee enthusiasm.

Finally, retaining good people is key. To do this, we help employees stay satisfied through growing and evolving, keeping them healthy, substance-free and resolving disciplinary issues.

WA: What has SWANA's collection division accomplished so far, and what does it seek to accomplish in the future?

SY: The division has not accomplished tasks that would enable us to keep our people competitive. The work of the collection and transfer station division is the cornerstone on which the rest of the waste system is based - you can't take waste to a waste-to-energy facility or landfill unless you've picked it up and transported it efficiently. The collection division must be the "crystal ball" for its members on emerging issues and be active in finding ideas to help them deal with issues before they reach crisis proportions.

Division members identified areas in which we needed to provide our members information: OSHA issues; environmental justice; task assignment [incentive routing]; national standards for trash containers; pay equity in strenuous, dangerous professions; worker protection; best practices; transfer station design and operations; competitive bargaining rules and constraints; recruiting/retaining qualified workers; benchmarking partnerships/best practices; collection efficiencies recycling; greenwaste; incentive/productivity programs; technology, and much more. My goal is to have some snippets of these topics in future division newsletters.

WA: Do you see a trend toward municipalities reclaiming their collection function? Why or why not?

SY: In the late '70s, the National League of Cities surveyed mayors around the country, concerning their biggest problems. More than 85 percent of them cited garbage issues in their top three - even if their cities weren't in the trash business. The most frequent reason given for garbage being on the top of the heap was complaints. Elected officials tend to avoid complaint-generating issues, and the trash business has more potential for customer complaints than most - i.e., cost, misses, style of pickup, environmental justice issues, pickup preparation, etc.

There are only three cities in Minnesota in the garbage business, and we're all feeling the pressures of competition one way or another. City finances are stretched, and unless municipal solid waste management programs are enterprise funds that can be tapped as financial resources, or are seen as superior in cost and complaint-free service than competing private providers, I don't see many municipalities getting into the business.

WA: What opportunities are there for women in solid waste?

SY: Historically, the solid waste industry has been much friendlier to women than other public works areas. I was once told that women's history of cleaning gives us a natural edge in the waste industry. A tour of my "condemnable" office was sufficient response to quickly dispel that myth.

The opportunities for competent women are enormous, just as they are for competent men. I think that the waste industry has recognized, earlier than many others, that we need every great attitude, every good idea, every willing pair of hands and every competitive heart if we are going to be successful.

WA: How have you made your collection operation more efficient?

SY: We updated the fleet and initiated a continuing replacement program on a pay-as-you-go basis. We installed equipment management software that should help us evaluate problem trucks and truck use behaviors. We've evaluated and cut routes, and educated residents on proper setouts. We have crew tags that are used to educate customers. Customers can return information on problem areas to our customer service staff. Also, we send letters to customers stating how they can help us provide cost-effective service.

State and county regulations, coupled with service to a core urban city, have forced us into several inefficient programs. For instance, we separately collect yard wastes and brush, recyclables and problem materials including metals. Problem materials are further segregated to separately handle CRTs [TVs and monitors] and computers, and we process all the white goods to remove hazardous constituents. Our suburban competitors don't provide most services that we consider basic.

WA: What are some of the most productive advancements you have seen in collection equipment recently? What do you foresee coming down the pipe?

SY: For suburban areas, fully automated collection is a fantasy come true. The reduction of risk and exposure to historic job hazards is a great advancement. As more cities go to cart systems, automated or semi-automated, we've seen positive results in productivity, safety and cleanliness.

I have been disappointed with the semi-automated lifting technology that we use - lifter repair on the garbage packers as a single category is responsible for more than one quarter of our service needs for our entire fleet, including recyclers and yard waste trucks. I expect that as lifter technology progresses, the components will be more robust and better able to stand up to a garbage environment. I'm looking forward to equipment advances such as ride and cab improvements. For example, cabs could improve by being more ergonomically designed and having Global Information Systems-based routing systems.

I'm hopeful that as technology advances many people are using co-collection or dual collection and will continue in the future. However, I'm afraid that less automation, rather than more will be required.

People quickly realize that in a fully automated collection program there is no one looking at their trash, and so they don't consider themselves accountable for what is inside their cart. My concerns are from a regulatory perspective as well as a worker, equipment, and safety perspective. Our customers don't realize that it's not only what they "hide" in their trash that could hurt us - it's the combination with their neighbor's hidden treasures that could be especially dangerous.

WA: How has recycling affected your operation?

SY: Minneapolis has been curbside recycling since 1986 - we have a mature recycling program.

The changes that have hurt our efficiency and competitiveness are the separate recyclable pickups we make. The suburban haulers don't handle items like yard waste, white goods, carpet and furniture that we do at no additional charge. Processing these is a significant cost - we even have to drill out the oil and gas on lawnmowers we collect. However, our mission is to pro-actively manage these wastes.

WA: What are some of the ways a government collection manager can protect herself from being privatized?

SY: Provide service and value. Our customers receive outstanding waste management services at a very competitive price. Our miss rate is less than 4 hundredths of one percent on more than 12 million service opportunities a year. Our customers realize that only Minneapolis provides tire and construction and demolition disposal at no extra charge. We have not had a rate increase since 1995, although we have greatly expanded our services. We have added value at no additional cost. This year, our budget will be tight, and as a strictly enterprise fund, we will need to either raise rates or cut back services.

WA: How have the industry and its people changed since you started in the solid waste business, and how do you see it changing?

SY: Cities used to offer waste management services as a part of the basic health and safety protection. These days it seems as though many cities have allowed waste management to almost become optional because of complicated and difficult collection requirements. This should change.

I'm proud of the people I work with and will stack them against anyone in the country. However, the back of the truck is the wrong place to effect social change. Asking them to take on responsibilities, such as accounting for a smorgasbord of separate fees, enforcing bans and a variety of other rules reduces their effectiveness at their basic job.

We're glad to take advantage of the safety and efficiency measures that technology has allowed and welcome the challenges that competition brings, while not forgetting our mission: "Clean City is Job One!"

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