Time for Pencil Sharpening in Waste Transportation
After spending the past week in Chicago at WasteExpo, I woke up this morning with an uncontrollable urge to ask some questions about waste transportation efficiency.
If you look at the front end of the materials management situation (extraction, production, delivery, and so on), you see what amounts to a choreographed system that operates with a "just-in-time" mindset. When you look at the back end–the waste side–what do you see? Not chaos for sure, but certainly not the scripted and balanced movement of materials and products that keeps the economy healthy. The question is "Why not?" What factors make waste collection, processing, transfer, and diversion/disposal seemingly more difficult?
Maybe I’m ahead of myself. Let’s start instead with the question, "Is the waste side less efficient and less amenable to a tighter orchestration of waste logistics?" If the answer is yes, then why? And what are the barriers?
Leaving the issue of strict economics alone for the moment, as I see it, the triggers for bringing increased efficiencies in waste movement are likely to be (1) increased long-haul activities involving a need to tighten the flow of refuse from collection through intermediate processing, sorting, and marshalling of materials and transfer to disposal or diversion destinations; (2) increasing regulation of waste transport by local transportation and emission regulations (waste is a tempting target for any politician who wants to curry favor with the masses); (3) increased reliance on rail haul to transport materials from transfer points to remote destinations; and (4) the need to exercise positive control over the movement and disposal of wastes on large regional landfills.
Given the foregoing, I see the following becoming mainstream in waste management:
• Automated collection of commingled municipal refuse at the curbside (we’ll continue to see source separation for a while, but eventually I have to believe we’ll see this change). Aside from strict economics, both traffic and emissions concerns are going to curtail multiple collection operations in neighborhoods.
• Increasingly sophisticated sorting, processing, and preparation of materials in intermediate processing facilities for transshipment to discrete diversion and disposal destinations. In line with this, I would expect to see increased focus on value-added features, including broader selection criteria and increased quality-control measures for recycled materials and conversion of organics to marketable resources (energy and compost).
• Requirements to stockpile materials at transfer points awaiting strict transportation windows. For sure this will be a requirement for rail- or barge-haul operations where the timetables will be determined by external factors, but perhaps by local transportation plans that will regulate the hours when collection and transfer vehicles will be allowed to operate in certain transportation zones.
• Increased haul distances to regional waste facilities that will establish a premium on optimum loading, scheduling, and routing of vehicles and loads. The concern is not only for equipment utilization but for operator availability as well. Since total route time is not merely the time to go from A to B to A again but includes the time waiting to get in and out of both the transfer station and landfill, at some point we’re going to see something that approximates "positive control" over transfer operations. While I suspect this is a long way off on the collection side, I see it as necessary at large remote regional landfills. Once positive control is instituted at a landfill, it seems it is merely a matter of time before that control moves upstream to the back door of the transfer facility and eventually to the collection side of the barn.
If you’ll remember, I left the issue of "strict economics" dangling while I went off in other directions, and it’s here that I am the least confident in my judgment. While we see greater efficiencies in many waste-handling activities, I still feel that there’s a lot being left on the table–for example, transfer trucks going out unweighed–and I have to ask myself what I’m missing. Is it that there is something inherently different in the transportation of goods on the waste side of the equation, or is it that the same level of competition as we find at the production side has yet to develop? Both, I believe, but I also think we’re rapidly approaching the point where rising costs of equipment, facilities, and labor will favor operators with the sharpest pencils.
Whenever I get these urges, I have to stop and consider the distinct possibility that I have gone off the deep end again. Thus, I’d appreciate your thoughts on the validity of my vision and what you see as target areas for increasing waste transportation efficiencies.
Author's Bio: John Trotti is the Group Editor for Forester Media.