One of the first (and worst) public works jokes I heard when I started with PUBLIC WORKS magazine was about solid waste. It goes something like this: A father is driving his young daughter to her first day of school and asks what she wants to be when she grows up. He's anticipating “ballerina,” or “doctor,” or “astronaut.” The little girl thinks for a moment, and says, “Daddy, I want to be a garbage man.” Puzzled, the father asks why. “It's simple, Daddy. They only work one day a week!”

If only it were that easy. Living in the large city of Chicago, I'm very aware of how much solid waste there is—on the streets and in the alleys, where my trash is collected. Those refuse collectors stop by my house only on Tuesdays, but I see the giant blue Streets and Sanitation trucks scattered around the city's neighborhoods every day of the week.

Chicago is home to about 3 million people, and the 1.1 million tons of residential waste generated annually is collected by semi-automated trucks, with cart tippers on the back. One guy drives while two others walk down my alley and hook the city-supplied carts up to the trucks. I haven't watched them too closely, but I'm sure their days are hard, since they're often slammed with good old Chicago weather. (It was 42° F when I woke up this morning. It's supposed to be 78° F before the day is over.)

Chicago and other cities that have either semi-automated or manual refuse collection someday may think about completely automating their collection routes. Automated refuse collection, now nearly 40 years old, has multiple benefits, including overhead cost reductions, safety improvements, and reduced labor.

Lowering Costs

It seems counterintuitive that purchasing a more expensive vehicle would lower overhead costs. In the short term, it doesn't lower costs—it increases the year's capital equipment spending. In the long term, costs are lowered because there are fewer trucks, fuel consumption is decreased, routes are lengthened, and efficiency is increased. These high capital costs can be offset by automating a city's routes gradually, obtaining loans, and financing through municipal lease-purchase agreements or a terminal rent adjustment clause lease. Some cities issue bonds, increase hauling rates, or start a pay-as-you-throw program.

Budgets are, of course, one of the first things that a city must look at when deciding to either automate its fleet or update current vehicles. Especially in today's belt-tightening economy, fleet supervisors must review each dollar spent carefully.

“My budget for 2005 is $7.5 million,” said Warren Atkins, solid waste collection supervisor in Little Rock, Ark., who has purchased Heil trucks. “This is broken down into three categories. Personnel costs are about $3.3 million, capital costs are approximately $949,000, and the balance is $3.6 million in supplies, vehicle maintenance, tipping fees, fuel, utilities, and contracts—of which the recycling contract exceeds $1.2 million.”

According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, the number of households served per worker per hour can increase by up to 300% with automated collection. Long-term benefits of purchasing these trucks, which can run a city into the millions, can pay off in just a few years. But what are the other benefits?

Improving Safety

Similar to road construction workers, trash collection employees always have to consider their safety. Switching to automated collection can reduce the number of accidents, lowers workers' injuries and workers' compensation claims, and decrease insurance costs. Manual collection is a rough and dirty job and can lead to injuries from lifting heavy loads to vehicle-related accidents.

“Our safety procedures are very standard,” said Jack Reggie, solid waste director for Lufkin, Texas. “Our day-shift commercial routes use two drivers for safety, while our night-shift routes just have one. We will be kicking off the ‘Slow Down to Get Around' program next month with radio and TV airtime to promote safety around all service vehicles throughout the city.”

The “Slow Down to Get Around” campaign, started in 2004, is a safety program that encourages people to slow down and drive carefully around collection vehicles to help reduce injuries. Sponsored by McNeilus Companies Inc., Rumpke Waste Corp., and the National Solid Wastes Management Association, the campaign has been in action for a year now, using TV and radio commercials to promote the program.

“Safety is a big concern for us,” said Greg Smothers, director of environmental services in the city of O'Fallon, Mo. “We're growing by 100 homes per month, so our routes are changing constantly.” Rather than adding new employees, Smothers changed the refuse collection team's shifts, and they now work four 10-hour days. “The automated environment helped speed things up.”

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