Solid waste residential collection going automated, 10 years later

Monica Bramble
Acting Director
Solid Waste Management Department
City of Spokane, Washington

In 1995, the City of Spokane Solid Waste Management Department decided to join the emerging trend and automate its residential garbage collection. Starting with a pilot of two routes, the City eased into a two-year automation period ending with 85% of the city on automated collection. Looking back at the past 10 years, going with automated collection has been a great success for Spokane. The benefits have far outweighed the challenges, but there are a few things that we would have done differently and some improvements we still can make.

Garbage service is provided to 65,500 households once a week with residents choosing between 20, 32, 68, or 95-gallon cart sizes. Extra garbage is allowed to be set out with the cart and a pack-out subscription service is offered. We have 18 automated routes and 5 semi-automated routes that collect five days a week. In addition, recycling and subscription yard waste collection are the same day as garbage collection.

The greatest benefit that automation has provided is the reduction in worker injuries. With manual rear-load collection, injuries averaged 1.6 per route, compared to automated collection which averages 0.16 injuries per route. Back injuries are the most common with both collection types, but with a national estimated average cost per claim of $24,000 and $40,000 with surgery, the savings add up quickly.

Efficiency places a tight second in automation benefits. Right off we went from two-man routes to one-man routes that could handle 260+ additional stops. Since we started yard waste collection at the same time, the displaced employees were utilized for this new service and no one was laid off.

  Automated collection truck on route

Another benefit to automated collection is that the residents love it. Not being sure how they would embrace this new collection method, citizens were surveyed during the pilot program. Ninety-seven percent of the respondents indicated that they found the automated carts much easier to move around and they thought their neighborhood looked significantly better on collection day with uniform containers. There were a few residents that resisted the change at first, but now you couldn't get them to give up their carts if you tried.

Automated collection has also reduced employee turnover. With manual collection being so labor intensive, employees would jump at the opportunity to transfer to another City >department whose work was less taxing on their bodies. Today our collectors stay with the department longer and, with seasoned employees, problems with missed stops, accidents and complaints are greatly reduced.

Going with automated garbage collection is not without challenges, the biggest being the increase in equipment costs. Our most recent automated trucks, '04 Wayne Curbtender bodies on Peterbuilt 320 chassis, cost $159,550 and have a yearly average maintenance cost of $25,744 per truck. That is compared to our '04 rear-loaders, Leach bodies on Crane Carrier chassis, which cost $153,200 and have a yearly average maintenance cost of $16,352 per truck. Individual repairs on automated trucks take some getting used to also. We just shelled out $32,525 on a complete arm assembly for the automated fleet so we could have a refurbished spare on the shelf when needed.

Getting automated trucks in all areas of the city is also difficult. In the older parts of Spokane, tight alleys and lack of off-street parking prevent use of our current automated trucks. Instead we use semi-automated rear-loaders. We are currently looking at options such as utilizing smaller automated trucks that can get in these problem areas. As rear-load collection is much slower, this will increase our efficiency.

  Collector picking up extras

We are still challenged with worker injuries but on a much smaller scale. Two contributing factors are: (1) allowing residents to set out extra garbage, so collectors get in and out of their truck up to 50 times a day to toss extras into the hopper; and (2) with 15% of the city still on semi-automated collection, the collector has to drag the cart to the truck to dump. Both of these factors create an added opportunity for injury.

We average about 700 stops per route which is below national benchmarks. A large part of this is due to the additional services we provide. Residents can sign up for a pack-out if they are unable to get their garbage to the curb. With this service, the collector carries the garbage cart from the resident's home, dumps it and carries it back. The other service that decreases efficiency is allowing extra garbage to be set out on collection day. We also will not leave garbage sitting on the curb. If a cart is blocked, the collector gets out and moves the cart so it can be dumped. All of these can slow down a collector who has to get in/out of their truck numerous times a day.

So, looking back on where we've been, what would we change? The first, which we implemented on our second automated fleet replacement, is to have the fleet be the same year, make and model. This helps the operators and the mechanics get proficient with a single truck style. It also cuts down on stocking different replacement parts for several different trucks.

The other changes affect the services we provide. Offering four different cart sizes allows citizens greater flexibility to fit the cart size with their needs but hinders collection efficiency. The 20-gallon size, which is actually a 32-gallon cart with an insert, has problems with the insert coming loose and getting dumped in the hopper. Many times the collector is not aware that this happened and it can go unnoticed for a long time. We also have to keep a larger inventory of carts which adds costs. Offering only the 68 and 95-gallon from the beginning, which represent 70% of carts on service, would have been more efficient. Replacing the pickup of extras and pack-out services with special collections by appointment would also increase the automated route speeds. These services can still be changed, but now that citizens are used to them, it won't be as easy as if we started out that way.

One activity we are initiating is the repair of our own carts. The garbage carts had a 10-year warranty which is ending, so instead of sending broken carts back to the manufacturer, we purchased a plastic welder to make our own repairs. With an investment of $2,107 we are hoping to significantly decrease our cart maintenance and replacement costs.

We can look back at where we were and say without a doubt that going with automated garbage collection was the right move. Adding up the challenges and benefits, and still tweaking for maximum efficiency, overall it has been a great success for Spokane.

Monica Bramble can be reached at (509) 625-6300 or