February 1, 2000

14 Min Read
Mandates Motivate to Automate

Aaron DeWeese

All across America, lifters and arms are replacing muscle, and plastic carts are replacing metal cans. But nowhere is the motivation any stronger to automate collection than in California, a state seeking ways to reach its 50 percent recycling mandate. In reality, most municipalities have made a concerted effort just to achieve a 30 percent rate. In fact, when the state reduction mandate was set at 25 percent, some of its municipalities switched to automated collection programs to help meet that goal.

"We actually started phasing in automation three and four trucks at a time beginning in 1989," recalls Lynn Merrill, director of public services for the city of San Bernardino, Calif. "But in 1995, with the 25 percent mandate, we purchased 18 new automated trucks."

San Bernardino's fleet now includes 37 automated trucks providing refuse, commingled recycling and greenwaste service to 36,000 customers in a 55-square-mile radius.

The city of Chino, Calif., also switched to an automated system to increase recycling. "Automation is the best option to get that 50 percent," says Rod Butler, senior management analyst for the city. "With automation, we got a larger capacity [96 gallons carts] and were able to accept more materials."

Approximately 12,000 single-family homes and 1,500 townhome and condominium units currently participate in the city's automated recycling program.

In addition, both Chino and San Bernardino collect greenwaste with an automated system. Chino's yard waste represents approximately 25 percent to 37 percent of the city's total waste stream, and automation is a more efficient system for collecting and separating greenwaste from regular garbage, according to the haulers.

"We knew we could capture that waste stream," says Butler, noting that the city provides color-coded containers for greenwaste and recyclables collection. Refuse is collected in a green container with a black lid; greenwaste is collected in a green container with a green lid; and commingled recyclables are collected in a green container with a slate gray lid. "We've really been pleased with the public participation levels. Automation has given us the best bang for our buck."

Scaling Back Back Injuries Automation also helps haulers cut costs by reducing worker compensation claims resulting from strenuous labor injuries.

"We've had a history of back and groin injuries," says Bill Arlington, site manager for USA Waste of California /Waste Management Inc., Corona, Calif. "We've looked to automation as a way to reduce our workers' comp injuries."

"Our goal was to reduce our worker's comp claims due to lifting-related injuries," Merrill says about automation. "We were trying to reduce our costs while maintaining our competitiveness. There's been a significant reduction in claims."

This isn't to say an automated system might not cause worker problems. In fact, Arlington has hired a consultant to study ergonomics as it relates to automation, in particular, its effect on carpal tunnel syndrome.

Haulers, however, are definite that automation eliminates workers. Full automation allows a driver to stay in the cab while a mechanical arm does all the heavy lifting. Automation can reduce labor costs and increase productivity, too.

According to Merrill, automation helped the city of San Bernardino eliminate temporary hires without eliminating full-time drivers. On average, an automated truck can make between 700 to 1,200 stops per 10-hour shift, depending on population densities and proximity to landfill. Merrill says San Bernardino drivers collect an average of two and a half loads per day at 10 tons per load for a total of 25 tons per shift.

"Each route averages about 700 lifts per day," he says. "We route for about 800 stops to 1,000 stops per route with about a 95 percent set-out rate."

Eric Herbert, vice president of Burrtec, a waste company serving Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties agrees automation can increase overall efficiency and help cut costs.

"There definitely is a difference in our route collection costs because we're able to collect from more houses per route with automation," he says. "We just have more productivity and more control on our routes with automation."

"If you're running six manual routes, you should be able to reduce that to three with automation," says USA Waste of California/Waste Management's Arlington. Manual routes only average 450 stops to 550 stops per shift, he says.

"Depending on landfill and travel time, we generate two trash routes, one recycle route and one greenwaste route for every 1,800 homes," he adds.

The Aesthetics of Automation While automation appears to be more efficient, distributing automated carts also helps communities look more uniform on collection day. The larger 90-plus-gallon carts also are more stable than smaller plastic cans and therefore, less susceptible to being blown over.

"Visually, most people believe an automated system looks better than random containers and bags, especially if you're talking about multiple refuse containers and greenwaste," Herbert says.

Arlington agrees, noting that he has taken comparison photographs of communities with and without automation. There is a noticeable reduction in the amount of wind-blown trash in communities with automated routes, he says.

Arlington also suggests using the same color for the carts, but with different color lids. "It is easier for inventory so all you need to do is keep different colored lids in stock."

"Scavenging, both by animals and humans, is decreased with an automated system," Chino's Butler adds. "It definitely improves the appearance of neighborhoods on trash day."

Collecting as many as twice the number of households in manual systems can take its toll on the trucks. According to San Bernardino's Merrill, automated trucks don't last as long as the venerable rear loaders. But Merrill says his city still has 11-year-old automated trucks in service.

Automated trucks start "racking up" maintenance bills after five years, he says, noting that there simply are more moving parts on automated trucks, which eventually means more repairs. Thus, when the city decided to add 18 new automated trucks and thousands of carts in 1995, the city leased the trucks for five years.

The city will begin a vehicle replacement program this year. Merrill has chosen to phase in more automated trucks - six per year - into his fleet to avoid large capital outlays. The staggered rotation will help the city make replacing older trucks more manageable.

Merrill anticipates it will take approximately seven years for San Bernardino to achieve a regular vehicle replacement program. In the meantime, the city's automated fleet will temporarily increase from 37 to 42 trucks by mid to late 2000. This will allow for more repair time for the older models.

Cart upkeep is another key concern. Lids snap, sides crack and vandalism occurs. Consequently, replacing damaged carts becomes a normal cost.

Merrill, who has many of his original carts from 1989 still in service, says his insurance is that most carts have a 10-year warranty. Additionally, the city of San Bernardino has an ordinance prohibiting cart abuse. Customers legally can be fined if carts are damaged due to their negligence, he says, although to his knowledge the city never has enforced this ordinance. In fact, it's probably better from a public relations standpoint for a city to simply replace damaged carts without question, he says.

Educating the Public Public education is an important part of preventative cart maintenance, Merrill adds. For example, it's important to have customers place carts with the wheels facing the curb and the lid hinges facing the house, he says. Although drivers are trained to spot improperly parked carts, they are bound to miss a few during an 800-stop shift. It if a cart is lifted with the hinges facing the truck, the lid will snap off from the weight of the garbage, he says.

But even more basic, a comprehensive public relations campaign is crucial to successfully implementing automated collection service. Switching from manual to automated represents a major change in service, and a certain amount of public complaint should be expected. The biggest adjustment customers must make, according to haulers, is going from virtually unlimited disposal service where a hauler will pick up every can and bag set out at curb, to a standardized 96-gallon cart.

"The biggest thing you hear from the public is, 'There's no way I'm going to fit all my garbage in one can,'" Butler says. "This is more a psychological issue than anything else. When customers actually look at the size of the containers a lot of their concerns go away."

When the city of Chino first contracted with USA Waste of California/ Waste Management Inc. to automate in February 1999, each household was given - and billed for - one greenwaste, one recycling and one refuse container. Customers then had to be taught how to separate materials and not to place carts too close to mailboxes because drivers needed enough room to negotiate the truck's lifting arms, Arlington says.

To educate customers, Donna DeBie, community affairs manager for USA Waste of California/Waste Management, says an informative brochure was sent to every household that received an automated cart.

But, she says, "Maybe half of them will take the time to read through the brochure. One of the basic questions always is: 'What goes in what cart?' That's to be expected whenever you have a city of people who aren't used to separating materials. Education is vital to implementing a new program. The more people know, the easier it goes."

In addition, DeBie says her company set up a hotline for concerns and complaints. "In the first month of implementation, we probably got between 300 to 500 calls," Butler recalls. He says calls tapered off as customers became accustomed to the new service.

Of course, the hotline could not be expected to completely eliminate customer concerns, says DeBie, who was in charge of the hotline and general public relations during the transition. Consequently, the city of Chino's utility staff also was trained so that they could answer commonly asked automation questions. Additionally, the city ran a public service video on a local community access television station to educate the public. The video was produced by USA Waste of California.

Arlington feels strongly about getting off on the right foot with his customers. So, when first distributing the carts, he says, "it is essential that carts are delivered by route each day. For example, you would deliver one route of 1,000 homes each day of the week. As you implement the automated route, you park your old manual collection equipment. This will ensure the accuracy of delivery to each residence and allows you to use your equipment properly."

According to Butler, at first, many customers were intimidated by the larger-sized 90-plus gallon carts. Especially for senior citizens, the larger cart seemed gigantic, he says.

However, wheels actually make automated carts more portable than traditional 36-gallon garbage containers. And once customers actually started using the new carts, most of their concerns went away, he says. Customers that didn't need such large carts were offered a 68-gallon container.

To ease customer concerns about having too little disposal capacity, Chino offered each household three free bulk pickups per year as part of its contract with USA Waste of California/ Waste Management Inc.

Rate Increases Additional disposal service also could be purchased for three- and six-months. Many customers purchase additional greenwaste containers for seasonal yard work, Butler says. So far, Butler says the program is going well - despite required changes to its utility billling system.

According to Burrtec's Herbert, rate increases typically occur with automation and, for the most part, customers don't complain. On the other hand, automation can be a first step toward volume-based residential collection, and people used to unrestricted disposal service may complain about paying for disposal like a utility.

"Although an automated cart is equivalent to three regular-sized containers, when you're used to putting out between eight and 10 cans, some people can get upset about paying an additional rate," he says.

According to Butler, when the city of Chino switched to automation it increased its rates. "We went from $16.26 to $17.98 per month for a typical single-family home, but it was the first rate increase in five years," he says. "I think we had a grand total of two calls complaining about the increase. There was not the major backlash one might expect with rate increases. I think people saw that they actually got something of value. I've been really pleased."

On the other hand, Herbert says that automation's benefit is their customers generally do not purchase their own containers. Collection service also can be expanded to include recycling and greenwaste.

"When we originally were getting into automation, we were told we'd have outcries from our customers," San Bernardino's Merrill says. "But after three or four months, the cries went away. Now, if we went back to the old system, we'd get cries the other way."

Customers aren't the only ones who don't like change. Drivers, too, have to make the transition from manual to automation. Drivers used to driving on the left side of the cab, must be comfortable steering on the right side.

Additionally, the joysticks that control the grabber arms require practice. According to Merrill, cart lids can get whiplash if the grabber arms are over-accelerated. Properly operating the joystick helps prevent unnecessary cart damage, he says.

Drivers also must learn to make routine inspections for preventative maintenance, Merrill adds, noting that packer blades need to be cleaned, and grabber arms need to be greased.

"At first our drivers were a little afraid of getting in on the new system," USA Waste of California/Waste Management's Arlington recalls. "But once they saw that it made their job easier, word got around. Now, drivers that are still doing manual routes can hardly wait to get their automated trucks."

There are challenges to automation; it isn't designed for every route, Burrtec's Herbert says. "We have some hard-to-access service locations on the top of long, windy roads where we still need rear loaders," he says. "And there are tight alleys where there isn't enough room to get a cart in. Those typically are the routes where automation is not feasible."

For many municipalities and smaller haulers, the significant capital expenditures of purchasing an automated fleet and carts, not to mention keeping them on the road and curb, simply may be cost prohibitive.

Nevertheless, while rear loaders are tried and true workhorses, those who have made the switch to automation say it's here to stay. As local governments look for a cost-effective way to collect recyclables and greenwaste and meet mandated waste diversion targets, the benefits of reduced injuries and labor costs, and more efficient route collection gives automation cost-effective advantages over convention.

Number of Refuse Trucks: 68 Peterbilt with STS or Stagg bodies; 40 trucks with STS bodies and STS Autobuckets; 12 White with STS Autobuckets and Wittke bodies; 12 Peterbilt with Amrep and Stagg automated side-loader bodies.

Types of Containers: 64- and 96-gallon Toter, Rehrig and Otto containers.

Customers: 103,377 residential; 8,526 commercial; 562 industrial.

Number of Employees: 200

Service Area: Franchise with city of Chino, Calif.,; Chino Hills, Calif.; Upland, Calif.; Corona, Calif; Norco, Calif.; Grand Terrace, Calif.; Loma Linda, Calif.; city of Riverside, Calif.; Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; county of San Bernardino, Calif.; county of Riverside, Calif.

Services Provided: Residential and commercial waste collection, recycling, construction and demolition debris removal and recycling.

Local Tipping Fees: $30-$33 per ton.

Number of Refuse Trucks: 300

Types of Containers: 30-, 60-, 90-gallon Rehrig Pacific

Customers: Commercial and residential throughout Southern California.

Number of Employees: 350

Service Area: Southern California, including Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.

Services Provided: Residential and commercial collection, recycling, and construction and demolition (C&D) debris removal and recycling.

Local Tipping Fees: $18-$38 per ton, depending on county.

Number of Refuse Trucks: 37 automated trucks with Heil and Amrep bodies with Peterbilt and White chassis; 16 front loaders with Amrep and McNeilus bodies on Peterbilt and White chassis; 7 Amrep rolloffs on White chassis.

Types of Containers: 64- and 96-gallon Toter carts.

Customers: 36,000 residential; 3,000 commercial/industrial.

Number of employees: 75

Service Area: City of San Bernardino

Services Provided: Residential and commercial waste collection, recycling, construction and demolition debris removal and recycling.

Local Tipping Fees: $28.50 per ton contracted rate; $33 per ton gate rate.

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