Uplifting Experience

It was 1973. Environmental issues were beginning to take center stage, Nixon was in the White House, and the reality-based television program of choice for most of the nation was called the Watergate hearings. And in the heart of Arizona, a new method of trash collection that would revolutionize the waste industry was being built.

Waste collection today is dramatically less labor-intensive than it was 30 years ago. Prior to the existence of automated equipment, early trash trucks relied on brute force to get trash from the curb to the dump. But the physical aspect of manually lifting and dumping seven to 10 tons of trash into a truck's hopper caused injuries.

The city of Phoenix believed there had to be a better way. “Phoenix has been pretty innovative over the years,” says Joseph Franklin, deputy public works director for Field Services. “[City officials] thought service to the customer, having their own container, cleaning up the neighborhoods and being able to pick trash up in a more efficient way was really important.”

So a few inspired minds put their heads together and began one of the first automated collection systems in the country. “[Officials] saw [automation] as a way to help industrial claims and to reduce labor forces,” Franklin says.

Ron Jensen, Phoenix's public works director, was the driving force behind the development of the first automated collection truck system “He actually is the one who started the privatization effort here as well,” Franklin says.

Tinkering with Equipment

Obviously, automation relies on equipment, which Franklin remembers vividly as the biggest hurdle. “I started as a mechanic in 1979 and worked on the stuff that the city was running. Most of the equipment was farm machinery hydraulics and stuff built in the basement,” he says. “We had a hydraulics shop that had eight or nine people working internally, building a lot of components. We built our own lifts and did those things to support ourselves because the industry wasn't mature enough.”

As the equipment developed, it looked as if the early machines had unlimited potential in waste collection applications. “It was so new for the drivers, for instance, that they started driving on the other side of the truck,” Franklin says of right-hand drive trucks. This changed how and what drivers could pickup. Phoenix was getting out of the front loader business at the time and believed that automation technology could be applied to this service.

“That was the end-all, and we were going to use automation for everything. Thirty years later, we see that it doesn't fit everywhere, and it's not everybody's end-result,” Franklin says.

Two Sets to Teach

The conversion to automated involved more than just trucks. Union employees were concerned that there would be layoffs with the new technology. “We went from three-man crews to one-man crews — that was an issue,” Franklin says, “but we dealt with the unions up front.” No one was laid-off, but employees were transferred to work on bulk trash pickup, which was handled with pickup trucks and trailers.

Then, employees and residents required training. Residents who were used to just tossing trash into a can in their alley had to be educated on the new system. “About 30 percent of my collection is in alleys, so teaching [residents] to bag and tie their trash from a health perspective and to throw it in [the container] was a big issue … making sure the kid throws it in there and not on the ground,” Franklin says with a chuckle. “We still deal with those kind of things, but back then it was probably more important.”

Crash Course on Carts

An automated truck without a cart is not very practical, so Phoenix made a point to test various manufacturers' carts in the early years. “I have some of everything,” Franklin observes. “I've got about 850,000 carts in service and we probably have one of each.”

The city also was lucky that Heil Environmental Industries, Chattanooga, Tenn., recognized the need for a system approach. It didn't hurt that the company had facilities located right in Phoenix. “We still have some of those lime-green [Rotomold] carts in service from the 1970s that have never [been] destroyed. We lucked out because they were right here in town.”

Nevertheless, compatibility between the carts and the early arm systems were an issue. “I don't think the cart industry was mature enough to work with the equipment. Somebody built a cart and the equipment tried to grab it so tight that it just smashed the carts in half,” Franklin remembers.

It wasn't until the mid-1980s that automation matured to where it was no longer a piecemeal approach. “Around 1985 was really the first time that we bought trucks that were automated trucks,” Franklin says. “Companies were manufacturing cylinders to better tolerances, and they realized that we were going to be doing a million cycles on this stuff — it's not like a rear loader. It was kind of a turning point where we weren't going to go back to farm machinery.”

Beyond and Back to the Basics

By 1985, Phoenix automated its last area and purchased 50 or 60 trucks, according to Franklin. But the drive to push this new envelope to its maximum potential forced the city to become a test-bed for technological advances that, in hindsight, were not always what the city needed.

“At one time, we probably had the largest automated fleet in the country, and we thought we knew best,” Franklin says. “We kind of drove the manufacturers down a path that I'm not so sure they wanted to go and, in retrospect, we probably shouldn't have gone. We tried to get really high-tech and build a bulletproof truck.”

Now, Franklin says, the city has returned to its roots and become smarter about buying. “We got off on a tangent, and I'll agree that we shouldn't have,” Franklin says. “Today, we are back to basics. It's just garbage, and we're just trying to pick cans up.”

News of the Day

Phoenix currently services 340,000 customers with a fleet of 125 automated side loaders. The division employs 365, with 200 solid waste operators and 30 employees involved in cart repairs and delivery. And the city pioneered the concept of managed competition and competes with the private sector to provide service in each of its six areas.

Phoenix also operates a fleet of 43 rear loaders that handle bulk trash collection and illegal dumping, and runs a fleet of 10 roll-off trucks that service city facilities and citywide cleanups. Although Phoenix is prohibited from providing full commercial collection activities, the city maintains three front loaders to provide multi-family collection services where automated servicing is impractical.

“We do twice a week collection in Phoenix,” Franklin says. The state of Arizona mandates twice a week garbage collection, but the city received a variance to provide once per week garbage collection and once per week recycling collection on a Monday/Tuesday, Thursday/Friday schedule.

Because of the need to maintain a sharp edge against the competition, equipment reliability and low cost are critical to Phoenix's success.

“I don't want a truck that can pick up cans in seven seconds but is down for two hours on the route everyday getting tweaked,” Franklin says. “No matter what warranty I have, it's still a problem when I've got a quarter of a million dollars tied up in a garbage truck and it's down. So in the past couple of years, Franklin notes he's focused on getting trucks up and running every day.

Franklin says he's somewhat surprised by automation's popularity and growth in the past 30 years. “I am amazed at some of the cities that have automated that you wouldn't have thought would have done that because of climate, the way the streets are laid out, some of those things. People have some very big hurdles to climb in automated in some eastern cities,” he says. “But you know you see more and more people doing it and they find ways around it.”

This has caused new manufacturers to enter the market with automated products. And the increased demand is pushing manufacturers to not become complacent, Franklin says. “The market adjusts to what's needed to do the job,” he says.

Meantime, Franklin and his staff continually tweak their automated system to improve efficiency.

For example, the city is examining tandem collection trucks that allow the driver to fill and haul two loads without making two separate trips to the landfill.

“I am going to try to keep the collection operator on the route and move equipment to and from him,” Franklin says. “The more that you can keep operators doing what they are doing, the better off we are.”

Green waste collection is another looming program that offers Phoenix exciting possibilities, and the city is hoping to improve the marketability of its recyclables. The city also will be bringing a computerized routing system online in the coming year.

“We're going to re-route the entire city, which will be quite exciting,” Franklin says.

So for all the heartaches the city of Phoenix might have experienced in the '70s as the city built its automated collection program block by block, Franklin thinks the operation's benefits continue to pay off.

“It amazes me,” he says, “I didn't think it would happen.”

Lynn Merrill is the director of public services for the city of San Bernardino, Calif.


Operations: Twice per week contained collection (one day garbage and one day recycling) and once each quarter bulk trash collection.

Services and Service Area: The city is approximately 475 square miles. Phoenix manages three regions, with each region divided in two, creating six service areas.

Number and Types of Trucks: For contained collections, the city operates 3 Peterbilt/McNeilus front loaders and 125 side loaders, including 1 GMC/Heil, 6 Sterling/Heil, 73 Volvo/Heil and 45 Peterbilt/Heil. For bulk collections, the city operates 44 rear loaders, including 4 Volvo/Heil, 5 Volvo/Leach, 6 Freightliner/Leach, 7 Peterbilt/McNeilus, 9 Crane Carrier Co./Leach and 13 Volvo/McNeilus. The city also recently signed a three-year contract with Wayne Engineering to purchase 28 side loaders.

Containers: Combination of 60-, 90- and 300-gallon fully automated carts manufactured by Otto, Toter, Rehrig Pacific and RMI.

Number of Employees: 365

Most Interesting: The city has 50 specialists who go out every day to manage customers and operate the call center, which receives approximately 10,000 calls per month.