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October 2004

Automated Refuse Collection has Come a Long Way

It was August 1, 1969 – mankind had just set foot on the moon, Woodstock was two weeks away and the first automated refuse collection truck hit the streets in Scottsdale, Arizona.

In the 35 years since, significant improvements to the design and function of automated refuse collection systems have resulted in benefits of lower overall costs, increased efficiency, improved customer service, reduced employee turnover and fewer worker injuries. In the face of rising costs everywhere, these benefits are convincing a growing number of communities and private refuse collectors to automate their refuse collection programs.

Today, industry estimates suggest that nearly 18 percent of all haulers in the U.S. have a minimum of one piece of automated refuse collection equipment in their line-ups. Refuse truck body manufacturers estimate that nearly 16 percent of all trucks in the U.S. are currently automated. Recent data collected by the Waste Equipment Technology Association (WASTEC), indicates 15 percent of all refuse collection vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2003 were automated side loaders.

While both private and municipal customers in nearly every part of the country have invested in automated collection systems, no two situations are alike. Others are still evaluating whether “going automated” is the right move for them.

A look back
In the beginning, all refuse collection was manual. It was unpleasant, backbreaking labor, often in stifling heat, with plenty of offensive odors. To make matters worse, injuries were common. Few people wanted that job, and as a consequence, turnover among refuse collectors was high.

In response to that unpleasant reality, communities began looking for better ways to collect garbage. Early attempts involved lifting trash bags with a simple boom and claw. Others featured a crude, side mounted hydraulic pivot for lifting common 55-gallon drums. In Scottsdale, Arizona, public works director Marc Stragier was convinced there was a better way. In 1969, the federal government awarded the city a grant to study automated refuse collection and determine whether it could become a cost-effective alternative to manual refuse collection for communities in the future.

Mr. Stragier set to work and soon thereafter, the world’s first fully automated refuse collection truck was designed and built to service a standardized, residential route. Five years later, he started his own company and invented the Rapid Rail system, later purchased by Heil Environmental. Systems. The Heil Rapid- Rail design is still manufactured and in widespread use today. “There have been more Rapid Rail bodies built than any other automated side loader on the market,” says Mark Keller, Heil vice president of engineering. “Not only is it tough and long-lasting, its patented packer design continuously sweeps the hopper, eliminating the need to stop and pack the load. We’ve recently combined this popular body with the technologically advanced Python automated arm to create the CP Python. The CP Python provides haulers with the ultimate combination of speed and dependability.”

Why automate?
While automated refuse collection may not be for everyone, there are some compelling reasons for municipalities and private refuse collectors to consider adopting it. Among those reasons are lower overall costs of collection. Though up-front investment is higher, automated collection routes require less labor – it’s a one-person operation. As a consequence, there are fewer on-the-job injuries and reduced worker’s compensation claims. That results in lower insurance costs, reduced overtime expense and less fuel consumed versus a manual collection system. With so many municipal budgets under the microscope today, all of these factors add up to considerable cost savings.

But that’s not all. Automated refuse collection results in better efficiency. According to the EPA, automated collection increases the ratio of homes served per worker by up to three times the figure of manual collection. That translates into fewer workers needed to provide service for the same number of households. Over longer periods of time, the increased efficiency of automated refuse collection can save communities significant sums of money. “On average, moving from manual to automated collection reduces the cost of service per household by 25 percent,” says Toby Harris, Heil marketing manager. “This can add up to millions of dollars in savings over just 5 to 10 years for many communities.”

Employee turnover – a costly problem for manual collection – is in stark contrast to an automated system where a single driver/operator sits in climate-controlled comfort through his or her entire shift, seldom leaving the cab. Scott Edelbach, director of sales for McNeilus Companies, Inc., manufacturers of automated refuse collection trucks said, “With an automated system, the driver operates a joystick, instead of lifting heavy cans. These conditions make attracting and keeping skilled workers a much less daunting task.”

Other benefits of automated refuse collection come from the uniform, purpose-built carts, or containers necessary to work with a particular system. The carts feature hinged lids to keep trash inside, and fixed axle wheels to make hauling them to the curb a lot less work than before. They can also reduce odors, keep things from blowing around and discourage a curious dog from helping himself to last Wednesday night’s meatloaf.

Recycling increased
Many communities have found that through automated refuse collection, recycling rates have been increased as well. On the automated routes, residents place recyclables in special recycling carts and position them at the designated point on the curb. The automated trucks empty the recycling carts in the same manner as the larger, general purpose refuse containers – in a single, orchestrated motion from the cab.

As more material is diverted from the wastestream through recycling, further cost savings are realized through reduced tipping fees at the landfill. In states such as California, increased recycling rates can help communities meet government mandates.

The road ahead
Whether a community embraces automated collection all at once, or approaches it through pilot programs or semi-automated service, one point is clear. Automated refuse collection is here to stay and for a large number of potential applications, it is shaping up to become a “do it now, or do it later” proposition.

There will be obstacles of course, such as selling to elected officials and to the community itself. Scott Edelbach, of McNeilus said, “Oftentimes the most difficult issue is educating homeowners along automated routes. People have been accustomed to placing cans and bags wherever they pleased, instead of facing a certain way at a designated point on the curb every week. Initially, there may be a feeling of getting less service than before, because many of the benefits of automated collection – aside from the uniform containers – are largely invisible to homeowners.”

Automated collection programs need support and buy-in at every level to succeed. Whatever resistance may be seen will likely reflect the popular notion – it’s not change itself that people object to. It’s being changed that poses the greater challenge.

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