Computers seem to make everything easier — even recycling, according to one Pennsylvania county. By incorporating electronic data collection using hand-held computers into its drop-off recycling program, Cambria county has saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars.

In June 1998, Cambria county began its countywide voluntary recycling drop-off program, which collects clear glass, newspaper, metal cans and No. 1 and No. 2 plastics at nine sites. The facilities were strategically placed within 5 to 7 miles of the county's 163,000 residents, according to Tanya McCoy-Caretti, executive director of the Cambria County Solid Waste Management Authority (CCSWMA).

Every day, Michael Lieb, CCSWMA collections supervisor, collects one material from each of the nine sites. In the past, he would manually tabulate the recycling data, such as how much of the commodity was collected or whether there were contamination problems. Then, Lieb would spend roughly half an hour each day at the office typing the data into a computer, then importing the information into a spreadsheet.

“You can only collect data with a pen and paper for so long before you realize that data collection is just a nightmare,” McCoy-Caretti says.

Then, while at the grocery store, McCoy-Caretti noticed drivers from companies such as Pepsi and Coke using hand-held devices to track inventory as they stocked shelves. She realized this device also could track the recyclables dropped off at the sites, which could help determine how much would be marketed. McCoy-Caretti turned to her brother-in-law, Ralph Caretti, a senior technical specialist at Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program (Penntap), State College, Penn. — a state-sponsored organization that offers free short-term technical assistance to Pennsylvania businesses — to help automate the data collection.

“We initially looked at writing our own software programs and buying hand-helds that were specifically designed for us,” she says. “To write our own software program would have cost close to $20,000. For a government agency, that was completely prohibitive.”

Lower-end devices from Symbol, Telxon and Intermec proved too expensive, as well as complicated, McCoy-Caretti adds.

“At the time, the specialized hand-helds we used were running DOS and they had to be heavily customized to work well,” Ralph Caretti says. “We were looking at several thousand dollars per unit and an inordinate amount of programming.”

So McCoy-Caretti and Caretti looked into less expensive and more user-friendly devices. The team decided to buy two Cassio E100s at about $400 each. The unit runs on a Windows CE operating system, which is a smaller version of Windows for PCs. CCSWMA chose ObBase database software, a $79 to $99 investment.

“ObBase looked easy to use, and it seemed easy to develop a database structure, as well as screens for entering data,” Caretti says. “It also is a low-cost solution that allows the operator to export data, which was important to the CCSWMA because it places data into Excel spreadsheets for analysis.”

The CCSWMA tested the new units from August through December 1999. By January 2000, the county began using the hand-held device exclusively.

Now, Lieb takes the Cassiopeia with him to each drop-off site. Using a stylus, a pen-like pointer that attaches to the side of the device, he simply pulls down menus to enter data. For instance, first he touches one of the nine locations. Then he enters the material and the approximate yardage collected at the site. A memo field allows him to write with the stylus or type in any problems that occurred at the site. At the end of the day, Lieb places the device into a carousel, and it automatically synchronizes with the Excel program, importing all the data into a spreadsheet.

In addition, each field is date- and time-stamped, which forces Lieb to enter data at the time he collects materials, as opposed to waiting until the end of the day before filling out information with pen and paper.

McCoy-Caretti estimates that electronic data collection saves Lieb 12 hours of extra work each week, which saves the CCSWMA $120 weekly. Since the county has used the new system for 35 weeks, it estimates its savings at approximately $4,200. Plus, the CCSWMA's initial $1,000 investment was recouped in two months.

Electronic data collection helps the CCSWMA keep more accurate records, which it compares to the processing center's records. If the facility's records show a contaminated load, McCoy-Caretti can check the complaint against her own data. This comparison is important because the CCSWMA either is invoiced quarterly for processing charges by the recycling processor, or it is paid a quarterly dividend, all based on the sales of the commodities that it ships to the recycling processor.

The device also helps McCoy-Caretti better target her educational efforts. For example, if Lieb notices that newspaper is contaminated with a large amount of magazines at a site, he notes that in the memo field. If after tracking the problem for about a month McCoy-Caretti finds a consistent problem, she will contact the local media for help.

“Prior to establishing our plastics recycling program, glass and metal bins consistently were contaminated with milk jugs and other plastics,” McCoy-Caretti says. “We worked with the newspaper, which published a couple of articles. Also, we ran ads that said we are not collecting plastics at this time. It seemed to help reduce contamination.”

So far, the CCSWMA is pleased with its new program.

“I recommend [you] explore what we've done before [you] make a expensive decision,” McCoy-Caretti says.