April 1, 2005

8 Min Read
Rural Readiness

William Worrell

IN RURAL AREAS, where populations are less dense, garbage collection stops are few and far between. The challenge for local governments is to develop a feasible, efficient and convenient collection system while keeping operating costs low. San Luis Obispo County, Calif., has proven that the task is not impossible. Through a flexible and affordable system, the county's rural collection program has stayed within its means while benefiting residents.

Learning the Ropes

Local governments usually collect garbage and recyclables in rural areas by providing municipal collection systems or requiring residents to self-haul their materials to disposal or transfer locations. Government leaders need to recognize what is best for the community, which could mean re-evaluating existing collection programs.

To implement a well-run rural collection system, governments must consider their entire program because each component affects another. For example, container selection affects the type of collection trucks, which affects operational considerations and service costs.

Primarily, the program should focus on customer care, because customer cooperation is essential to a sound waste management system. The four factors involved with customer care are: collection frequency, container characteristics, container locations and pricing.

Service frequency can vary from on-call to daily collection. For example, some businesses, such as restaurants, require daily pickups. However, residential customers typically need twice per week or once per week collection. Low collection frequency is less costly, but some states mandate garbage be collected at least once per week.

Governments also must choose appropriate container characteristics and sizes. Some communities allow homeowners to use their own containers, which often is a 32- gallon plastic or metal can. Other communities provide a wheeled receptacle, anywhere from 19 gallons to 96 gallons and larger. For less frequent garbage collection, some customers receive 1- or 2-yard bins.

Once the container size has been determined, the government must choose the location residents and businesses can place their containers. In some communities, residents place containers at the curb, while in other areas, the container is collected in the yard.

Pricing also must be determined. One pricing option is to allow essential, unlimited garbage collection for a flat rate. Another option is a pay-as-you-throw program, in which customers are charged for the amount of garbage they generate, either by volume or weight.

The four factors — collection frequency, container characteristics, location and pricing — also apply to recyclables and green waste collection. Typically, recyclables are collected on a weekly, biweekly, bimonthly or monthly schedule. While most communities collect garbage every week, many try to save money by alternating weekly collection for recyclables and green waste. However, a limited recycling or green waste collection schedule could result in limited success.

For example, with an alternating week pickup schedule:

  • The public must remember the correct collection week. If a collection day is missed, the resident then must wait two more weeks until the next collection. With green waste, odor problems can arise if collection is not frequent enough.

  • If collection is every other week, a community may be unable to provide a large enough recycling or green waste container to hold generated materials.

  • With an alternating week collection program, especially for recyclables, the government may need to defend a program that is marginally successful or unpopular with the public. With poor results, elected officials may decide to terminate the program altogether.

In another case, a recycling coordinator touted his program as having once per month recycling collection with a 96-gallon container. When other cities questioned whether 96 gallons were enough when collection only occurred monthly, he said the city limited the types of items that could be placed in the recycling container. This obviously defeated the purpose of encouraging residents to recycle.

Making it Work

During the past five years, 11 jurisdictions in San Luis Obispo County have implemented variable rate systems and weekly recyclables and green waste collection. Garbage, recyclables and green waste now are collected in 32-, 64- and 96-gallon wheeled containers. When the county first began its recycling collection program, it provided residents with a 32-gallon container. But because of the large quantity of recyclables being collected, it replaced more than 90 percent of the containers with the 64-gallon size.

Today, San Luis Obispo provides every resident with a 64-gallon blue waste container for recyclables and a 96-gallon green container for green waste. Residents who generate more or less recyclables or green waste can deviate from the standard container size and choose from 32-, 64- or 96-gallon sizes.

San Luis Obispo also has adjusted pricing. Previously, some residents were provided up to six standard 32-gallon garbage cans for $12 per month. So when the communities began offering recycling and green waste pickups and three container sizes, it also created a variable rate payment option in which residents' fees are based on their garbage container size. There is no separate charge for recycling and green waste collection; it is included in the monthly garbage fee.

In San Luis Obispo, the residential service rates, not including franchise fees, are: $6.07 per month for a 19-gallon refuse container, $9.71 per month for a 32-gallon container, $19.42 per month for a 64-gallon container and $29.13 a month for a 96-gallon container. Therefore, if residents use a 32-gallon refuse container and recycle more, they could have the disposal capacity equivalent to their previous six standard garbage cans but at a lower price.

How Often, How Much

In many communities, a weekly recycling program has been successful at diverting waste, and this applies to rural areas as well. In San Luis Obispo County, one community conducted a pilot study to determine whether weekly or biweekly recyclables collection suited its needs. The city contracted with a large refuse company to provide biweekly pickups. The pilot examined biweekly pickup on a route for 4 months. Unfortunately, the results were not as impressive when compared to other communities in the county that used weekly recyclables and green waste collection.

The ratio of residential garbage/recyclables/green waste went from 64 percent/13 percent/23 percent to 46 percent /25 percent/29 percent when pickup frequency increased. Therefore, the community directed the collection company to implement a weekly recycling program.

Despite better collection rates, weekly recyclable pickups can increase costs, especially when driving long distances, as is common in rural communities. But when San Luis Obispo's 11 communities converted to weekly refuse and recyclables collection, the additional transportation and collection costs were offset by reduced disposal costs because the residents were diverting more materials.

Self-Haul Options

Despite its success in diverting more with weekly recyclables pickups, San Luis Obispo recognizes that in extremely rural areas, municipal garbage collection may not prove affordable. In some very rural areas of the county, residents are allowed to burn garbage, using burn barrels, to reduce waste volume. When a 55-gallon drum is full of ash, it is transferred to a landfill.

In other areas, residents are required to take their garbage and recyclables to a consolidation point, such as a transfer station (bin site) or disposal facility.

Because recycling can be challenging for residents who self-haul their waste, Cold Canyon Landfill, located in San Luis Obispo County, has implemented a resource recovery park to accommodate self-haul materials. At the site, as many as 200 drops occur per day. The facility includes different areas where appropriate materials are discharged for recycling. This has helped the facility create a diversion rate of approximately 67 percent.

Despite the challenges of moving trash long distances, garbage collection, disposal and recycling options are available in rural areas. The number of homes in an area and the available infrastructure will help determine a local government's best options for a cost-effective and efficient collection system that meets customer needs.

William A. Worrell is manager of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

A Numbers Game

Rural collection is admittedly more expensive than collection in urban areas because trucks traveling long distances between homes are less efficient than trucks that pickup in areas with high populations. To determine the time it takes to collect, and in turn, the cost to provide service, the following equation may prove helpful.

T = a + b(c) + (b-1)(d) + e + f + g + h +i where:

T = total time in a work day

a= time to drive from the garage to the collection route

b= number of stops

c= average time to collect at each stop

d= average time to drive between stops

e= time to drive from the route to the disposal/recycling facility

f= time on site at the disposal or recycling facility

g= time to drive from the disposal or recycling facility to route

h= time at the end of collection to empty the truck and return to the garage

i= other time for lunch, safety meetings, traffic jams, etc.

Assume the sum of a, e, f, g, h, and i is four hours, c equals 5 seconds and Y is 8 hours. In an urban area, d, the average time to drive between stops may be equal to 10 seconds. Thus, the total number of loads collected per day would equal 960. However, if d is equal to 55 seconds, the total number of stops collected would be 240. Therefore, it would take four trucks to collect garbage from the same number of homes in a rural area as from an urban area.

However, one factor that might offset the difference is that in rural areas, trucks are on the route longer because they pickup fewer loads, but they tend to be closer to disposal sites.

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