Garbage isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it will continue to increase significantly every year until the day someone invents a way for it to disappear after it hits the bottom of a trash can. Just imagine all of the landfills closed and not a speck of litter on the nation’s highways. The waste is just whisked away into another dimension, creating a clean and healthy environment for the entire world. However, that just isn’t very likely.
Until that fantasy comes true, major challenges face the solid waste industry, and business plans are constantly being rewritten to prove it. Private haulers and municipalities face increased regulation, competition for labor, longer hauling distances, and public demand for diversion. Manufacturers face increased costs for raw materials, shifts in product marketing, and again competition for skilled labor.
There is no simple answer to these problems. Each hauler, city, county, and manufacturer in the solid waste business will have to deal with these challenges in the coming years. Everyone will have different answers, yet some will work and some will not.
To reduce workers’ compensation claims, increase productivity while saving money on collection, and generally tidy up neighborhoods with aesthetically pleasing curbside carts, semi- and fully automated collection was created. Since its first implementation in this country was nearly 20 years ago, the industry now has a good idea of what to expect from automation.
“I’ve never found a municipality that wanted to go back to two- and three-man collection,” remarks Gary Gengozian, marketing director for Heil Industries in Chattanooga, TN. “We see automated collection as a solid growth area for the industry in the future.”
Municipalities and haulers see the benefits of automation as outweighing the costs related to the systems. Many have been able to use the workers taken off manual routes to support other departments, better utilizing the work force. In some instances, the unused labor force has been transferred to attract higher-paying commercial customers.
For industry manufacturers, automation has spurred complete changes to product lines. These companies are poised for huge sales as a result of increased automation.
“As new technology emerges, haulers will continue taking automation into applications that previously were strictly manual service,” says Skip Lynn, senior vice president for Toter Inc. in Charlotte, NC.
For example, one such area is litter collection, according to Lynn. “New automated litter containers allow collectors to use automated residential route trucks to service them. Many cities and haulers are moving into this to save money and improve service frequency.”
Automated carts now range from 20 to 120 gal. and are tougher and more weather-resistant than ever before. Truck chassis have been modified to handle increased breaking and turns on collection routes. Truck bodies now include sideloaders with hydraulic arms and separate bins for recycling.
An increased public demand for recycling and diversion is also driving automation and the industry.
“We will see a continued focus on separating the wastestream, which calls for more rollout carts for recycling with divided bins,” states Jeff Nadeau with Otto Industries in Charlotte, NC. “Using the same trucks, a hauler can pick up solid waste, recyclables, and yardwaste.”
But not every hauler and municipality will automate its collection system. Some will resist the temptation based on problems they have seen in other applications, some might not be able to afford implementing or maintaining the program, and some just won’t be able to use it.
“Automation is the glamorous side of garbage right now,” observes James Johnston, vice president of McNeilus in Dodge Center, MN. “It’s effective and growing, but 40 percent of what we sold last year was still rearloaders. Some haulers are concerned about the high maintenance costs, and that means automation has to become more efficient.”
If a residential customer packs a 95-gal. cart with several hundred pounds of waste, it’s likely that some component of an automated truck could be damaged while picking it up. High maintenance costs in this situation are a typical downside for automated collection.
“We are trying to make simpler parts, more commonsense parts to lower maintenance costs,” Johnston said. “Any manufacturers that deal with automation need to start doing their math and their homework. We now have a history of automation. We can learn from it and do better.”
Johnston expects great strides to be made in the next 10 years with better-quality hydraulics and electrical components in the automated machinery. “If the industry focuses on the nuts and bolts of the equipment on the road and not just the bells and whistles, the systems will run much smoother and with more efficiency.”
In booming economies, competition for skilled labor also slows the progress of automated collection across the country. Semi- and fully automated routes decrease the number of employees on route but demand higher-trained drivers and mechanics to operate and maintain the automated equipment.
“We are working on making the equipment very serviceable for the customer,” Gengozian notes. “We are increasing our training for the customers because we want them to feel as comfortable as possible with how the truck works and maintains.”
For the manufacturers, finding skilled labor is also becoming an issue, especially in some of the small towns where the manufacturing plants are located,” remarks Gengozian. “Right now, it’s the economy that keeps the unemployment numbers down and the skilled laborers busy.”
Product design is constantly changing to meet customer needs, but manufacturers need to be cautious about their own costs too, Nadeau believes. “We do need to make more user-friendly and innovative products, but we need to make them cheaper to manufacture as well.”
He states that the plastic-cart industry faces rising resin costs in the near future. “The volatility in resin costs will eventually have to be passed down to the customer, so we have to find better ways to keep costs down while improving the quality.”
Companies such as McNeilus are investing in technology today that will hold down manufacturing costs in the future, Johnston says. In the spring, McNeilus will open a completely robotic manufacturing line for its refuse truck bodies.
“This country has put people in space, but our industry has used blacksmith technology for too long. It’s time for us to find a strategy to control costs and stick with it in the new millennium,” Johnston remarks.
A typical bid from a municipality for a collection program includes carts, truck chassis, truck bodies, scales, routing software, and lifters, just to name a few.
With so many manufacturers involved in putting together an automated collection system, all of which are striving to become more efficient, wouldn’t it make sense to work out the compatibility issues? asks Bill Birth, marketing and program development director for Cascade Engineering Inc. in Grand Rapids, MI.
At SWANA’s WASTECON show in Reno in October 1999, McNeilus and Cascade joined together for just that reason. “Our turnout demonstrated that customers want the industry to demonstrate how efficiently we work together,” Birth observes. “If we begin to pool our expertise and share research and development duties, we can put together very efficient programs for the customers of the future.” It’s all a matter of marketing, he adds.
Birth suggests increasing partnerships within the solid waste and recycling industry and coordinating industrywide education programs for haulers, municipalities and, finally, the residential and commercial customers.
“Cascade’s view on how to mutually serve its customers is to make systems that work on-route,” he says. “We have contacted body companies to work in developing solid sales approaches. We also work with them to make sure our carts are compatible with theirs. It’s in their best interest too. In the past, we as an industry have not worked on this as well as we could have.”
Minneapolis’ director of solid waste and recycling, Susan Young—also international director for SWANA’s Collection and Transfer Division—agrees that automation has some wonderful applications and should be marketed more, but she says it still isn’t for everyone.
Minneapolis has state-mandated semiautomated collection based on variable rate by volume, and Young isn’t happy with the state’s decisions.
Automation depends heavily on educating the residential and commercial customers on proper disposal techniques and curbside placement of the carts. It also relies on enforcement and dealing with the consequences that follow.
Young points out that problem areas for automation are in core urban cities with very mobile populations. Every time someone moves out of a rental home, that new tenant needs to be educated on automation. This process is time-consuming and sometimes futile, she notes.
“If the tenants don’t place their garbage bags in the cart, it doesn’t get picked up,” Young says. “Then the landlord, who probably doesn’t even live in the state, gets fined a couple dollars per bag.”
She also sees an increase in state and federal regulations regarding toxicity reduction in the wastestream. This includes fluorescent lights, medicines, and cleaning agents.
“That’s nice for a politician to be interested in that, but in a semi- and fully automated system, enforcing toxicity reduction on the back of a truck or from behind the wheel is nearly impossible. If it makes it to the tipping floor, the haulers get blamed for picking it up. So where do we deal with enforcement?” Young asks.
As for the state-mandated variable rate by volume program, Young has studied the data, and her conclusions state that if one household has a 20-gal. container and another has a 95-gal. container, chances are they weigh the same.
“Big carts are fluffy; small carts are stuffy,” she says. “In a smaller cart, the residents just stomp it down to keep from paying higher costs.”
Inevitably, state-mandated measures to reduce waste such as this often hurt the local communities instead of help them, Young observes. “Good economies create more garbage. Smaller carts and more laws don’t decrease it. If a hauler cannot reduce the wastestream, it gets fined, and that fine is passed along to the community.”
How do you prevent your local politicians from passing unobtainable quotas on waste reduction? How do you prevent them from blindly passing legislation that will hurt your municipality or customers? Young concludes that education is the best way.
“As an industry, we must be active in the regulations and policies that govern us. These folks in office need to understand what life is like on the street with those collection drivers.”
She believes that every hauler and municipal official should know the names of their state and federal representatives and senators. “The industry has good lobbyists on the national level, but you also need to talk to your local politicians and let them know how the regulations will affect your customers.”
As states continue to mandate closings of noncompliant landfills, superlandfills are being created, sometimes many miles away from urban populations. Labor costs rise as the trash is repackaged at the remote transfer stations and then sent to the landfills. Haulers are required to invest in more fleet vehicles, and maintenance costs increase because of extended time on the road.
“These longer distances put pressure on haulers and municipalities to control costs,” notes Rick Talbot, director of marketing and sales for Vulcan On-Board Scales in Kent, WA. “One sure way to do it is to use onboard scales and charge those larger accounts that generate more waste. Greater enforcement of overweight trucks will also cause more demand for waste-diversion programs.”
The biggest challenge that the industry faces in the future is growth, according to Young. Remember, garbage isn’t going away. “When will the day come when a politician finally says the words ‘retail manufacturer responsibility’?” she asks.
Customers will continue to throw away their garbage. Haulers will continue to collect it. Landfills will continue to bury it.
Solid waste and recycling equipment manufacturers will continue to change their product lines to become more efficient and driver-friendly. Finally, with the right marketing message, automation will work in the smallest towns and the largest cities in the country.
All of this will be made easier on manufacturers, municipalities, haulers, and customers if the industry regulators that govern them in the future understand the issues entirely.