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Credit: Heil Environmental

In automated refuse collection systems, an operator who never needs to exit the vehicle can run the truck.
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    Weighing the costs

Collection of solid waste and recyclables accounts for an average of 50% of municipal solid waste (MSW) management system costs. This typically represents the single largest percentage of MSWmanagement budgets, according to a study by the Solid Waste Association of North America.

Any reduction in collection costs can have a major impact on the overall budget, and automated refuse collection is one solution. Although upfront costs are high, automated systems usually significantly lower a community's overall collection costs and pay for themselves through savings. On average, switching from manual to automated collection reduces the cost of service per household by 25%.

The savings associated with automated collection generally result from reduced labor costs (it only takes one operator to run a route, compared to three for most manual routes), fewer injuries and workers' compensation claims, lower insurance rates, less overtime, and lower fuel usage. Other benefits include increased efficiency, reduced employee turnover, and better service for customers.

Automation has some drawbacks. In addition to upfront costs, the other primary disadvantage of automation is higher ongoing maintenance costs. Automated vehicles generally require more maintenance than manual collection vehicles. Communities should thoroughly evaluate the total cost of owning any equipment before they buy it, examining not just acquisition costs, but also long-term expenses like maintenance.

DECISION TIME

To determine if automated collection is right for you, it's crucial to start with a thorough understanding of the current system and its costs. An internal audit of the system should be conducted by employees, private consultants, or equipment manufacturers. Consider every element, including:

  • Services offered: residential, commercial, lawn waste, recycling, brush, large item pick-up, etc.
  • Fee structure
  • Number of households served; future projections, especially in areas with rapid population growth, also should be taken into account
  • Number of pick-ups per week
  • Weight-carrying restrictions on vehicles
  • Landfill/transfer station round-trip distance and time
  • Makes, models, condition, and age of current equipment
  • Number of collection vehicles in the fleet and the 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: number of households collected per day per worker, time spent on and off the route, etc.
  • Accident numbers and workers' compensation claims over the past five years; consider the number, types, and severity of the injuries, and number of working days lost as a result
  • Employee absentee rate.
  • Gathering and analyzing all of this data is a huge task, but to make a proper comparison decision-makers need an accurate understanding of current conditions and costs, and of elements that will impact the area's future refuse collection practices.

    Next, think about which services to automate. Most communities start by automating residential collection, then many add automated recycling collection.

    Also consider fee structure. The move to automation is often a good time to adopt a pay-as-you-throw plan. It also can be an opportunity to change the number of pickup times per week.