The move to automated refuse collection

March 1, 2005
IN the automated refuse collection industry, they've come a long way since Godzilla. That was the nickname for Marc Stragier's first fully mechanized

IN the automated refuse collection industry, they've come a long way since Godzilla.

That was the nickname for Marc Stragier's first fully mechanized garbage truck designed to pick up residential refuse containers. When it debuted in 1969 in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Stragier was public works director, Godzilla needed about 30 seconds to empty a single refuse container.

These days, there are trucks that can do it in less than 10 seconds.

Their popularity has increased dramatically in 36 years. An estimated 17.5% of all haulers in the United States have at least one piece of automated refuse collection equipment in their fleets. And 15% of all refuse collection vehicles sold in the United States in 2003 were automated side loaders, according to data collected by the Waste Equipment Technology Association.

But even with the benefits of efficiency, long-term savings, upgraded customer service, and reduced employee injuries and turnover, selling automated refuse equipment requires hurdling two obstacles: financial (high up-front costs and higher maintenance costs) and political (wariness on the part of elected officials and communities).

That's the view of David Baratti, director of marketing for Heil Environmental, which has released Automated Refuse Collection: A White Paper.

“The whole transition from manual to automated collection has the potential to be a political hot potato, if it's not managed properly,” Baratti says, “but some refuse body manufacturers have tools that they make available to help.”

Heil's white paper says that automated refuse collection vehicles cost about 18% more than similarly sized manual rear loaders. In addition, carts — at a cost of $35 to $50 each — must be purchased for every household.

Although the overall cost per home served may remain unchanged because fewer automated vehicles are usually required than manual vehicles, maintenance costs for the automated vehicles are generally higher. Their hydraulic systems work hard, lifting, packing, and lowering 1000 or more times per day, as opposed to 200-300 cycles on a manual rear loader.

Heil says that it's critical to thoroughly evaluate any equipment before deciding on a purchase because maintenance costs vary dramatically between manufacturers' scheduled maintenance programs.

Paying for themselves

Those up-front costs appear less daunting when the overall costs are examined. Automated systems pay for themselves through the savings they generate. For example, Longmont, Colorado, spent $5.1 million to automate its system in 1999 and completely recouped its investment by the end of last year. According to Heil, the cost of service to each household also is reduced by about 25%. Those savings come from:

  • Reduced labor. Labor usually is the largest component of collection budgets. Switching to fully automated collection dramatically reduces the number of workers needed, frequently dropping from three workers per vehicle to one. Beyond that, improved efficiency leads to a reduction in the number of vehicles and crews needed, with the workers frequently moved to other positions.

    “There is a need to be sensitive on the labor front,” Baratti says. “People have to be careful how they manage that. In municipalities, they can make jobs available in other departments. Municipalities and private companies alike often plan the shift to automation to coincide with normal attrition, frequently in conjunction with a hiring freeze. Early retirement incentives are also widely used. However they proceed, everyone needs to be sensitive to how they handle the personnel issues, because it can be a roadblock. People considerations are high profile. The conversation could center on the fact that operating an automated refuse collection vehicle is a safer job.”

  • Fewer injuries/reduced workers' compensation claims. Manual refuse collection is physically demanding. Heil says Longmont spent almost $500,000 on workers' compensation claims in a three- to four-year period using semi-automated collection. Contrast that to claims of $1,000 the first year after moving to a fully automated system. On-the-job injuries are rare because operators rarely leave the truck cab of an automated refuse collection vehicle.

  • Lower insurance rates. Workers' comp insurance premiums decrease as worker classifications and responsibilities change from driver/laborers to operators. The city of Thornton, Colorado, reported that its injury costs in the first year of operation dropped to zero and workers' comp insurance premiums dropped more than 60%.

  • Less overtime. Eliminating injuries reduces the need to use co-workers and pay them overtime or hire temporary workers.

  • Less fuel used. Reducing the number of trucks can slash fuel needs.

More households

Moving to an automated collection system increases the number of households served per worker per hour by up to 300%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's 1999 study.

Employee turnover is also often reduced when automated collection is implemented. Heil's paper says there may be no more drastic difference in working conditions than between operating an automated refuse collection vehicle and collecting from the back of a manual rear loader. Operators pick up and dump containers with an automated arm, seldom leaving the comfort of their climate-controlled cab. Contrast that to workers laboring in the elements, physically lifting refuse and risking injury from heavy, sharp objects, and environmental hazards.

According to an MSW Management report in 2004, the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming, had a 113% turnover in refuse collection workers in 2001. Most refuse fleets that move to automation report that their operators stay in their positions much longer. Automated equipment operators also earn a salary of 5-10% more than drivers of manual vehicles.

Other benefits of automated collection include: a uniform appearance with fixed-lid, wheeled carts, which also reduce blowing trash, odors, animal scavenging, and health concerns; and a likely increase in recycling efforts.

Heil says that in order to determine whether automated collection is right for a community, decision-makers must start with a thorough understanding of the current system and its costs. An internal audit should be conducted by employees, private consultants, and/or equipment manufacturers.

Every element should be considered, including: services offered (residential, commercial, lawn waste, recycling, brush, large item pickup, etc;) fee structure; number of households served (projections for the future should be considered); number of pick-ups per week; geographical/topographical issues (distance between houses, street configurations); weight-carrying restrictions on vehicles; landfill/transfer station distance/time round-trip; makes, models, condition, and age of current equipment; number of vehicles in the fleet and number used per day; number of workers per vehicle; labor rate, including benefits; current maintenance and operations costs; vehicle productivity (average weight per load, compaction rates, etc); employee productivity; accident numbers and workers' comp claims over the last five years; and employee absentee rate.

Develop goals

Once data is collected and analyzed, the manager should develop goals, such as improving efficiency, reducing costs, reducing workers' comp claims, and improving employee attendance.

To develop a plan to achieve those goals, considerations should be made — everything from makes and models of equipment (productivity, maintenance costs, and maneuverability vary dramatically by vehicle) to size and number of carts to annual projected maintenance costs.

Heil gives an example of a sample community of 75,000 households that found that the cost per home per month for manual collection was $3.94 vs $3.54 for automated collection. The community would save $29,965 per month by going automated, for a total savings of nearly $1.8 million over the first five years. If the community amortized the initial expenses over five years — as many do — the monthly collection cost per home would drop even further in the next five years (due in part to the fact that carts already have been paid for and need not be replaced in years six through 10). So for the next five years, the community would save more than $1.14 million every year.

This example covers only costs for labor, equipment, and maintenance. Other savings would come through a reduction in workers' comp insurance, reduced work-related injuries and resultant lost work days, increased attendance, and the decreased supervision requirements of an automated system.

Productivity? In this sample community, a single operator can collect 760 households in a day, as opposed to a crew of three on a rear loader collecting 405 households per day.

Balancing act

How should automated collection be promoted? Heil says that when a municipality is considering a change, representatives from all interested groups — residents, unions, staff, homeowners' associations, etc — should be involved in the evaluation process as early as possible, so their concerns can be addressed and the rationale explained. By doing that, a consensus can be built instead of conflict.

“Elected officials may be wary of eliminating jobs or appearing to reduce resident services (especially if moving to automation also means a change from twice-weekly to weekly collection),” Heil's paper says. “The high initial investment in automated equipment and containers may scare some officials. It's important to provide elected representatives with solid information on the consequences of moving to automated collection so they can make informed decisions.”

Key elements include: projected long-term cost savings; service improvements; productivity and efficiency improvements; reduced injuries, workers' comp claims, and insurance rates; decreased employee turnover; case studies of similarly sized communities that made the change (including testimonials from residents/voters in those communities); a plan for displaced employees.

Selling the idea to the community should start with a written plan outlining which steps will be taken to seek public input on the proposed changes.

Common concerns: an expectation that the reduction in costs should translate into tax cuts, lower collection charges, or some other form of customer rebate; carts being hard to maneuver, especially for elderly or physically disabled residents; not having enough room for all of a household's refuse in a single cart; displacement of workers; questioning why a system that “works fine” should be changed.

Heil's paper says that communities making a gradual transition to automation may consider purchasing special refuse collection vehicles designed to ease the process.

Drop-frame side loaders are a popular choice. They can be equipped with a cart tipper on one side and the automated arm on the other, so they can be used to pick up manual, semi-automated, and automated residential routes. It's also an advantage in communities where not all routes are suitable for full automation due to narrow streets, on-street parking, or other restrictions.

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.