Smooth Moves: Transitioning From Manual to Automated Collection

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Nearly 13 years after beginning the East Coast’s first fully automated MSW collection system, city officials in Virginia Beach, VA, have conquered many of the bumps and bruises municipalities fear during the transition from manual collection. Now the city is a medium-market showcase for the system’s advantages.

“To hit all the angles of things to expect, we had to do a lot of brainstorming with city employees who weren’t necessarily in our department,” recalls Wade Kyle, director of Virginia Beach’s solid waste department. “We sampled containers, researched other cities, and talked to truck manufacturers to make sure nothing fell through the cracks.”

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Because of a booming population in Virginia Beach, Kyle says he began researching automation in the early 1980s but was unimpressed with the technology used in other cities. By 1986, he needed to make a move as his 315 solid waste employees aged and workers’ compensation costs climbed to nearly $300,000 a year. Today Virginia Beach employs 139 solid waste employees, with only a fraction of the workers’ compensation claims that were filed before automation.

Do Your Homework

Research into the necessity of an automated collection system begins with an internal audit of a solid waste department. Private consultants, equipment manufacturers, or municipalities can conduct these audits.

According to Frank Bernheisel, municipal solid waste consultant for Gershman, Brickner and Bratton in Falls Church, VA, two important factors decide whether a collection transition can take place. The first is a financial need related to employee costs; the second is city officials’ willingness to change.

“If the municipal leaders understand the long-term benefits upfront, then the headaches that might come with the transition are much easier to handle,” relates Bernheisel.

Some of the headaches that scare away many large and small solid waste departments are the immediate capital investments required in automating a system. These costs include new truck purchases or upgrades, higher maintenance costs related to the increased number of hydraulic components, and curbside-container purchases in mass quantities.

“These look like downsides, but if the system is designed correctly, they pay for themselves quickly,” he states. “The advantages to fully automated collection far outweigh the disadvantages related to up-front costs.”

The most obvious advantage is the reduction of the crew size, usually from two or three down to just one.

“When you have two men on each side of the street lifting heavy trash cans and tossing them into the back of a truck, it’s easy to say injuries are common. But if you can remove those employees and use an automated arm that does the lifting, a huge savings can be felt immediately,” Bernheisel explains.

He points out that for larger cities, a phase-in period is sometimes necessary to allow the government and citizens to adjust to the changes and look forward to them, not fear them. A two- to five-year plan allows for attrition of the work force, which eliminates layoffs. In addition, it allows for the slow replacement of trucks as needed, which reduces the initial costs. A municipality can also run more efficient routes by increasing the number of houses served per day and, if needed, increase the quality of recyclables received by using the new automated containers available in the industry.

Use Industry Experts

Bernheisel suggests using industry knowledge from municipal consultants and equipment manufacturers while researching the types of equipment and services needed to transition to automated collection.

“Before the bid process, municipalities must investigate every possible relevant specification related to the program,” he explains. “This includes everything from the wear and tear on the truck chassis to the sturdiness of the container lid.”

Henri Steffens, president and CEO of Plastic Omnium Zarn in Reidsville, NC, says he is often called into meetings to help guide municipal leaders through the automation process.

A Systems Approach to Automated Collection

It’s a rare MSW manager who doesn’t experience a few quivers in the gizzard at the thought of transitioning from manual to automated collection. Bad enough having to deal with the project itself, but consider how much worse it is having to balance the requirements of several diverse systems and their vendors at the same time. As was pointed out in Elements ’98 and again in Elements ’99, a glimmer of hope lies in the ability of manufacturers and vendors to work together to adopt a systems approach to the problem. Many attendees at WASTECON ’98 attended a virtuoso demonstration on automated collection hosted jointly by the Heil and Otto companies. Now Cascade Engineering of Grand Rapids, MI and McNeilus of Dodge, MN have taken up the theme, announcing their intention of hosting an open house at WASTECON ’99 featuring an automated demonstration.

Adopting a shared business approach rather than creating an exclusive marketing environment, both companies have committed to working to ensure product compatibility and develop integrated systems for the waste collection sector. By looking at the overall picture in the automated collection implementation process—program design, program education/information, type and size of equipment and components, operating cost factors, rate structure, and even financing options—they are confident that they will be able to provide solutions that meet their mutual customers’ service requirements.

“It’s just common sense,” says William Birth, marketing and program development for Cascade. “By pooling years of industry experience and working to develop compatible systems, we can address all the bugs—from program design to how customers are introduced to a new collection format to operators’ concerns—before the first cart is tipped into the hopper.” Jim Johnston, vice president and general manager of McNeilus Refuse Division agrees: “By demonstrating to industry professionals the positive impacts that automated collection operations can have on operations and customer satisfaction levels, we perceive that many new opportunities will be generated.”

“Our CityCarts are the first thing the residents see, so of course we want to make sure we help the city leaders design the most efficient and successful program possible. This is the time for city officials to get to know us [manufacturers] and trust us. We help cities and counties throughout the country every day, and we can come up with solutions to any challenges they might face in transitioning to automated collection.”

Jim Schooler, southern regional manager for Heil Environmental Industries in Chattanooga, TN, believes truck manufacturers also have the responsibility to learn as much about the customer as possible.

“We can’t just drop off a fleet of trucks to a city. We literally have to spend days and days with the customer to help them with the complexities of a new system,” he says. “We not only help them choose the right equipment, we help train the drivers and redesign their daily routes. It’s the total system of support and cooperation from manufacturers that helps make a program successful from day one.”

Running an automated route is much different than running a manual one, Schooler points out. Truck manufacturers have to train the drivers to use the hydraulic lifters, navigate around obstacles in the way of the automatic arm, and even turn the vehicle in tight neighborhoods.

Some cities have also chosen to abandon their address-based routing systems and take the leap into purchasing computerized operating plans such as RouteSmart (Columbia, MD). Chris Walz, vice president of sales and marketing, says RouteSmart can help make the transition to automated collection a much easier process.

“Our software creates routes based on street maps and factors in one-way streets, right-turn restrictions, and speed limits,” he describes. “We can also help calculate collection restraints, capacities, and when to return to the landfills.”

Pilot programs are the easiest way to demonstrate the efficiency of automated collection with all the components together for a limited time. Schooler says the most common method is to let a city use one truck and divide several hundred carts into separate districts. After six months, a customer-satisfaction survey reveals whether the program will work in that community.

Coordinating delivery time for all of the necessary components is also a vital part of the system. John Johnson, operations manager for the refuse collection division of Columbus, OH, admits this can be a time-consuming effort and is only successful with the cooperation and patience of all the vendors involved.

“You just can’t order 200,000 carts and 200 trucks at the same time,” he says. “It takes a lot of time to coordinate the whole program, especially with a tight budget and limited storage space.” Johnson notes that throughout the process of automating Columbus, he worked with officials at Peterbilt, Leach, Heil, Volvo, and Toter to ensure workable time lines for delivery.

“We purchased different trucks and bodies for different applications, and each time we allowed a ‘feeling-out’ period to work out any kinks. Once our drivers were comfortable with the trucks and the automated equipment, we ordered the containers to be shipped and assembled for curbside delivery.”

Sell the Idea at Home

Bobbie Hill, former director of public works for Conyers, GA, says she learned of the advantages of automation after taking a group of employees to visit an existing automated collection system.

“We were thinking about it, but we were afraid of the hilly terrain and the trees along the streets in Conyers,” she recalls. After visiting Warner Robbins, GA, which has similar terrain, her city’s leaders were convinced it would work.

To sell the idea at home, Conyers officials tied their new system into the upcoming 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. For Hill, the initial capital investments included the trade-in of both rearloaders owned by the city. “We put out a bid for the total package, and Heil came through with the best trade-in allowance and carts. The residents were excited about it because we gave the trucks a new logo to match the Atlanta Olympic color scheme and we promised them cleaner streets when the world came to watch the games.”

When Kyle was ready to sell the idea to civic leaders in Virginia Beach, he also took a trip. His delegation, which included some of his solid waste employees, went to Phoenix, AZ, to study the automated system there.

“We stayed three days, and the group asked a lot of questions. By the time we left, the drivers we took didn’t want to go home without the automated trucks,” Kyle remembers. “From then on we knew it would work if we did our homework.”

During the next five years, 20,000 residents were introduced each year to the automated system. Virginia Beach invested in a combination of fully automated trucks from Heil and Volvo Trucks of America and 95-gal. containers from Plastic Omnium Zarn.

But before the first container was delivered, Kyle needed answers to a host of questions. How long before the investment pays for itself? What happens when a car or a tree limb is in the way of the automatic arm? Are the increased maintenance costs worth the investment? How do we educate the public to use the container in the proper way?

“With the help of the financial department and a lot of bidding and planning, we proved to the city leaders that the program would pay for itself within three years,” he says, “and it did.”

As for obstacles in the way of the automated arm: “If a driver has to get out of the truck 50 times a day out of a thousand stops to move the container, that’s not going to bother me. Anyway, it gets them out of the trucks to stretch and get some exercise.”

Maintenance to the automated trucks is higher, but Kyle maintains that the savings from fewer employees and fewer injury claims far outweighs the costs of weekly maintenance checks on the trucks and hydraulics in the automated arm.

In fact, the Virginia Beach solid waste program startup was so successful that a recycling program was implemented last year, and delivery of the containers was finished within three months. “We had a successful program with a solid account list, and the public loved the fact that they were getting a second 95-gallon container,” Kyle notes. “The containers keep the recyclables cleaner and drier, and that means higher fees from the recycling facility.” 

Civic Education

Both Hill and Kyle agree that education of the municipal leaders is a key component to the process, but the hardest part is civic education.

“I went out at least three nights a week for eight months to civic organizations explaining to their members how the program works,” Kyle recalls. “After that, we still needed help from the local media to deliver the message. Finally, three weeks before the containers were delivered, we sent out direct-mail fliers to citizens.”

He reports that the successful education blitz had a rippling effect throughout the community and the program quickly sold itself. “During the five-year phase-in period, it was hard to explain to the residents at the end of the list why they couldn’t have their 95-gallon container right away.”

In Beaumont, TX, during the 1980s, residents resisted automation when they found out the collection was to be reduced to once a week. Charles Ross, manager for the Houston Department of Solid Waste, was in charge of the automated system rollout in Beaumont and for the more recent Houston program.

“Beaumont is a coastal city where the residents thought the stench from week-old seafood would be too much for them,” he says. “They petitioned for twice-a-week pickup and got it until they realized how good the system worked even with once-a-week pickup.”

John Chambers, East Coast sales manager for Toter in Statesville, NC, says vendors can help with civic education. “We can pull brochures, door hangers, and even refrigerator magnets from other projects we have worked on and offer them as templates to the new customer.”

According to Bernheisel, most residents welcome the transition but sometimes disregard literature and cause service disruption by not following the proper container protocol. “For the most efficient collection, residents need to fill the containers with solid waste, recyclables, or yardwaste-whatever is allowed-and place the container in an accessible spot near their curb. If they don’t, the system won’t work properly.”

Hill agrees that this was one of the major obstacles when her city transitioned. “We met with home association groups, handed out fliers, and did as much as we could to educate the citizens on how to use the carts, but it didn’t always work, and we had to go out and mark their curbs so they knew where to put it.”

Still today, as new residents move into Conyers, big red stickers are placed on the carts, pointing to the direction the cart must be facing for the automated trucks to pick them up.

Pick What Works for Your Community

Each automated system is designed uniquely for the community it serves. Sometimes the approach works, and sometimes it doesn’t because not every automated city is a success story.

For example, Columbus took 14 years to reach 100% automation. In 1984, Columbus had more than 500 solid waste employees; today it has 250. Although the college town is saving several million dollars in reduced employee costs per year, the headaches have been a public relations nightmare, according to Johnson.

Because of economic pressures and a lack of civic commitment in Columbus, the process stalled after only several thousand residents were automated.

Once the program was revived in 1992, solid waste planners had to work around the traffic congestion near the Ohio State University campus, which prevented fully automated collection for 27,000 residents. Columbus needed to use semiautomated pickup because the automated arm could not reach containers blocked by vehicles parked around the school.

To make the situation more unique, many neighborhoods in Columbus are laid out with a series of alleyways. Trying to be as efficient as possible, city leaders purchased 300-gal. containers that were delivered to serve up to 60,000 residents.

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and that is one of the big ones,” Johnson admits. “People just don’t like to share their garbage container with neighbors. Our biggest problem has been a lack of cooperation from the community. We are still working through it.”

The truck town of Rainsville didn’t think automated collection would benefit it at first, but now it is convinced and expanding as a result.

Managing municipal solid waste is more than landfilling: publicity, education, engineering, long-term planning, and landfill gas waste-to-energy are specialties needed in today’s complex environment. We’ve created a handy infographic featuring 6 tips to improve landfill management and achieve excellence in operations. 6 Tips for Excellence in Landfill Operations. Download it now!  

City Councilman Nathaniel Ledbetter explains that the north Alabama community had a choice last fall: stay in the garbage business or get out and lose control of pricing and customer service.

After an initial investment of $200,000, the Rainsville solid waste department is in the black for the first time ever and expects to pay off all debts within two and a half years, he reports.

Since automating, Rainsville has picked up the collection from a neighboring town with 300 homes and is now considering automating its own downtown commercial collection routes.

For a rural town such as Rainsville, paring down the work force from three to one is significant. “It’s hard to keep good help on the trucks, and when we realized we could make money and give better service to our customers, we got into it quickly,” Ledbetter says.

He adds that the transition was much smoother than he expected, and the city is now enjoying cleaner streets, lower insurance rates, reduced employee costs, and cheaper collection rates than the county’s contracted hauler.

Whether the municipality serves 1,000 or 100,000 residents, automated solid waste collection is quickly becoming an efficient tool across the country to reduce costs and increase service. But to avoid certain hassles, civic leaders need to study the program thoroughly and access the knowledge of their peers, who have undertaken the task, and the manufacturing companies that have helped.

One of the key lessons learned by others is proper education of the public on cart usage and curbside placement and knowing what will work in each unique municipality. Msw Bug Web

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