Solid-waste collection is just one area in which managers are called upon to do more (service an ever-increasing number of customers) with less (a constrained budget and a static or dwindling fleet size). Fortunately, with route tweaks and equipment advances, it's totally possible.

Mike Mee, a veteran solid waste administrator in Newport News, Va., advises that when you're putting your own city's program under the microscope, consider the following:

  • Equipment: Look at your vehicles' density, cubic yardage, and capacity.
  • On-street parking: Steering around curbside cars packs time onto drivers'daily routes.
  • Safety considerations: overhead wires, safe turning routes, etc.
  • Distance to and from the public works yard.
  • Distance to and from the landfill.
  • Handicapped collections: Drivers may need to go to the rear of a yard to collect from special-needs residents.
  • Driver workload: If one vehicle is making more stops or covering more distance than others, adjust the routes and work schedules so that the burden is distributed more evenly.

Is Automation Right?

After assessing routes and equipment, you may decide automated collection is viable (see sidebar on page 47 for available resources). But while automation conserves long-term costs by slashing fleet and staff size, the initial investment can be a tough case to make to city officials.

“The devil is in the details,” says Ana Stagg, public works director for Owasso, Okla., a town with a population of 33,458—nearly double what it was in 1990. Stagg witnessed the challenges of switching to fully automated collection firsthand when she brought the proposal to its city council. Rapid residential, commercial, and industrial expansion made the town one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, stretching Owasso's solid-waste department to the limit. Equipment was failing, the overworked staff was demoralized, and customer service was suffering.

To combat the problem, Stagg enthusiastically lobbied for funding a conversion of the collection fleet from semi-automated to fully automated. After a presentation comparing the benefits of manual, automated, and semi-automated vehicles, she convinced the council that an initial investment of $1.1 million would get the town on the right track. The plan: to introduce automation gradually.

At the onset, the city has one automated and three semi-automated vehicles; by the fifth year, Owasso will have a fully automated fleet of four vehicles. According to Stagg, the recently implemented pilot program has already showed results; employee morale is at an all-time high, and turnaround has dropped.

If you, too, can convince your officials to fork over funding for automating routes, you could end up with more money in the bank.