Progressive Waste Programs Key To Los Angeles' Success

WW: In what ways has L.A. been progressive or an innovator in solid waste management during your tenure?

DB: In 1984 when I became sanitation director, the Bureau collected materials manually and we had no significant curbside recycling program. The biggest innovation at that time was the one-man truck method of refuse collection (a single employee in a refuse truck acted as both driver and loader).

Since that time, we have implemented a citywide curbside recycling program for the 720,000 residences we service that includes separate collection of recyclables and yard trimmings. In addition, we automated the fleet that collects the yard trimmings and refuse using a standard allotment of one 60-gallon yard trimmings container (green) and another 60-gallon refuse container (black) for each residence. Collection of recyclables in a 16-gallon yellow bin was performed manually. To ensure cost effectiveness, we developed a series of contracts with material re-covery facilities (MRF) throughout the city - to ensure short haul distances to the processors - and implemented contracts to co-compost our yard trimmings with wastewater biosolids generated from the Bureau's waste-water treatment plants. The result was a compost bagged and sold as TOPGRO, the city's own compost.

Changing the way we provided service to every single customer was a monumental effort. To facilitate rollout and to encourage local business, the city provided Plasto-pan Inc., San Francisco, with a container price preference and, in return, Plastopan built a 60-gallon automated container facility in central Los Angeles.

WW: What were some of the most difficult situations you've faced, and how did you handle them?

DB: All attempts to make improvements are met with opposition and naysaying at some point in an effort, and our programs were no different. A great deal of money was involved in the purchase of a new automated fleet and of the more that 111/42 million automated containers. The lobbying by vendors and manufacturers was unprecedented for sanitation and, at times, it seemed as if the corridors of city hall were lined daily with people advocating their particular products or services.

As we proceeded, both the mayor and city council treated us fairly. They questioned our decisions and sought more information from us, while simultaneously taking the kinds of actions that were in the best overall interest of the city. The Board of Public Works also lent support and encouraged us as we proceeded through what often seemed like a minefield.

The most difficult part of the entire effort was meeting the deadline established by the city council for completing the rollout, which we failed to meet. Although we thought we might have a chance to get the job done, the time needed to manufacture the fleet and containers was just too long to hit the target. But, in retrospect, starting the rollout in the fall of 1990 and completing it in 1995 truly was remarkable and, I believe, in the end, everyone was satisfied with the results.

WW: Define the positive and negative aspects of automating the city's collection.

DB: Automating our yard trimming and refuse collection activities had many positive aspects for the Bureau and our customers. With automation, we were able to move into a new era which no lon-ger relied heavily on the driver's physical ability to collect materials. The new air-conditioned, automated trucks permitted us to establish work standards for collection activities that were not dependent on employee production, but instead were based on a goal of containers emptied per hour. To capture this benefit, our employees, their union and our management came together in a Joint Team for Work Standards to establish standards for on-route performance. Their efforts led to tangible savings for the city as we committed to achieve a 25 percent reduction in collection personnel over a three-year period. We are now in the second year of that effort and are on course to make the commitment.

The program's negative side was most vividly demonstrated on December 6, 1995, when a city-automated truck hydraulic cylinder penetrated the side of one of our trucks and hit the side of a school bus, killing two children and injuring several others. This horrible accident caused the city leadership as a whole to take a new look at the automated program. We began to ask basic questions about the safety of these vehicles, the wisdom of pushing to increase collection speed, the quality of driver pre-checks of the vehicles and whether the automated program was an asset to the city's operations.

Since the accident, intense reviews involving teams of manufacturers, public and private collection providers, engineers and structural materials experts have taken place and the overall system improvements have been positive. The memory of the accident, however, will be a constant reminder to all of the city's collecters that our standard safety practices are important.

We must maintain a strict daily routine to prepare our employees and/or vehicles to deliver our services as safely as possible.

WW: What problems do you anticipate from the city's emerging automated recycling program?

DB: The city is entering another exciting time as we begin the rollout of automated recycling collection. In the program's original design, the use of 16-gallon yellow bins for recyclables (bottles, cans, papers, etc.) proved to be faulty. The city's curbside recycling rate has soared to around 40 percent due primarily to the amount of yard trimmings and compost we collect. This has been the "easy" part.

However, we are not likely to achieve the state-mandated 50 percent or the city goal of 62 percent without doing a better job of capturing more recyclables. Our waste characterization surveys clearly show that although some 40 percent of the refuse stream could be recycled, we are capturing only about 6 percent. It is obvious that we need to do something dramatic to upgrade the recycling program and increase the amount of recyclables we collect.

We tested three types of automated collection of recyclables - all using 90-gallon blue containers. Our largest automated containers are used for recycling because recyclables make up the largest portion of our waste stream. In addition, the container's size will be a constant remin-der to our customers that most of their materials should be going into it. Citywide testing with pilots in each of our 15 council districts provided a great deal of information about single stream, "blue bag" and split container collection methods. In the final analysis, the single stream program showed the greatest potential for cost saving, in-creased participation and decreased scavenging.

We now have secured approval for full citywide rollout from the Board of Public Works, the mayor and two council committees. The last step will be full council approval. We will begin the program by the end of 1998 and expect to have the usual problems with vehicle and container deliveries. No doubt, there will be issues that arise with the container's size. The people who rolled out the initial program have the expertise and knowledge to deal with these kinds of issues, so I strongly believe that all will go well.

WW: What are the key issues solid waste managers will face in the next five to 10 years?

DB: Reduction. Waste requiring disposal always will be a major issue for waste managers. In Los Angeles in the 1970s, it was assumed that disposal sites would never be a problem. The focus of activities was collection and disposal at landfills, and since there were many canyons and old gravel pits in and near the city, it seemed as if there would never be a problem. As we closed our last two city- owned and operated landfills in 1987 and 1996, the old mentality was put to bed and the focus on waste reduction became the most important aspect of our work.

Technology is an important issue as we seek new equipment and systems to do the job better. Global positioning systems that locate fleet vehicles and allows supervisors to call the truck nearest a customer minimizes costs and greatly improves overall program performance. Automated data collection to "coach" drivers on how to improve their performance on the route now are in city vehicles and have proven to be an asset.

Technical outreach to business and industry also is essential. In 1995, the Integrated Solid Waste Manage-ment Office (ISWMO) became a part of the Bureau and is responsible for waste reduction initiatives in the private sector of Los Angeles. Solid waste managers must be alert to any opportunities to learn what works so that they can consider whether any particular initiative will improve their program.

Overall, public education and participation in initiatives to increase diversion of waste away from landfills will always be near the top of the list. When the customer clearly understands the importance of what they do, they will make the right decisions and will do their part to improve the program.

WW: What elements in L.A.'s solid waste program are most satisfying for you?

DB: In the late '80s and early '90s, we began the process of changing a mindset and culture among our employees. Instead of a trash/garbage/refuse program, we created "The L.A. Resource Program" with the idea that what had been trash was, in fact, full of resources to be mined and sold instead of landfilled. Over time, the concept has caught on and we no longer have a Refuse Collection Division, instead we have a Recycling and Refuse Collec-tion Division. A small thing, but a major change in mentality.

Another very satisfying area for me is our new relationship with our working staff and their unions. Instead of continually going head to head on issues, we have found a way to work together for the mutual benefit of both groups. Twelve years ago, doing such a thing would have been impossible, and I give full credit to our employees, to union leaders and to our supervisors and managers for what has been accomplished.

Finally, I am most satisfied with the fact that we have totally changed the way we provide services to our customers. By automating collection, initiating a citywide curbside recycling program and beginning the rollout of a "second generation" program for recycling, we have driven home the point that we are concerned about controlling our costs and minimizing waste.

WW: Will you continue to work in the solid waste field after you retire from the city?

DB: At this time, I have no plans to continue working in solid waste after retirement. After 33 years with the city, I am looking forward to taking some time and doing a lot of things that there just wasn't time to do after getting up at 4:15 a.m. every day.

I'm not precluding work at some time in the future, but for right now, I am eagerly looking forward to some good quality time with my wife Linda, our sons and our three grandchildren.