More and more cities and towns are making the switch to automated trash collection and doing so for a variety of reasons — current price decreases and labor issues among them. Some trash collection is performed by city employees while others are contracted out.
For Cleveland Heights, Ohio, it had gotten to the point where the equipment needed to be replaced so some decision had to be made. According to Public Works Director Collette Clinkscale, the trucks had gotten so bad they couldn’t make the 80-mile one-way trip to the landfill in Shiloh, Ohio, so whether the city automated or not, something had to be done in order for operations to continue.
“We were at the point in the sanitation department where we needed to replace equipment — we were getting complaints from residents,” she said, adding the previous public works director did a rate study on a couple of occasions to see what it would take but never implemented anything.
The city council also appointed a task force made up of members of the community. They went to the sanitation department to see what it takes to pick up trash manually. They also looked at whether they should continue to do it manually, try automation or privatize and contract out the trash collection.
“All those options were looked at,” she said.
Speakers were brought in for the task force. Some were people from surrounding communities to talk about how they transitioned to automation. The task force also listened to speakers from waste companies, who shared what is going on in the industry.
Clinkscale said they analyzed and studied the information for about seven to eight months. Before the task force’s work, the city had conducted another rate analysis to determine the cost to transition, which included a route study.
“The cost to transition to automation as part of the rate analysis helped determine what the new rate should be,” she said. “The new rates were effective in April, and between then and the end of the year, we’re bidding out the carts and equipment.”
Clinkscale said the sanitation department is hoping to implement the new automated system by this November. The task force concluded it was best to keep trash collection in-house and purchase automated trucks; it believed there were more benefits to keeping the trash collection in-house.
“We’re a bedroom community, and they felt it was more personal and beneficial to the community,” she said.
Cost and rate increase
The cost to upgrade to automated equipment is expected to be about $4.4 million. The first rate increase in April raised the rate by $4.67, making the monthly cost $16.17 per family unit, which includes a 96-gallon trash cart and a 64- to 65-gallon recycling cart.
There will be additional increases of about 2% for 10 years. At the end of the 10 years, that rate is expected to be $19.32. An additional $0.80 per unit will be put aside in a capital needs fund to help pay for equipment maintenance and upkeep.
But the rate increase doesn’t cover the entire cost of the transition. Clinkscale said the general fund is subsidizing about a half million dollars. At the same time, the department has received a couple of grants for the recycling portion.
“We were successful in getting a grant for the recycling portion — $200,000 from the Recycling Partnership and $200,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency,” she said.
In addition, the city received a $5,750 Community Recycling Awareness Grant from Cuyahoga County for educational and informational materials, which it plans on using to educate and inform residents on single-stream recycling.
“We’re planning a robust educational program,” she said.
Clinkscale presented the plan to automate to the city council in October 2020, and councilors approved it in November 2020.
The city will be purchasing four new automated trash trucks, two recycling trucks, three tractor-trailer trucks and five aluminum trailers — the last two to haul the trash to collection facilities. The four automated trucks are replacing the number of manual trucks the department currently has in operation. The city is also purchasing 29,400 carts — 14,700 of each type. The sanitation department currently has 27 employees and will be cutting back by four to 23 employees.
Clinkscale said from her standpoint, there are no negatives to making this switch.
“I’m looking forward to it. I think it’ll be a good change. Once residents are acclimated, they’ll like it. The employees are looking forward to it.”
She noted some routes have 400-600 properties, so it’s very labor intensive, and therefore, the city has had a lot of injuries. Moving forward, Clinkscale believes there will be fewer injuries.
Clinkscale said the general feedback from the community has been positive. The main concerns she’s heard include some residents thinking the carts look messy or that they have no place to store them. A few seniors are worried about their ability to handle the large carts, so the city plans to offer them a smaller version.
“Overall, the community is looking forward to it,” she said. “And there’s been no real complaints about the increase — they acknowledge a rate increase is necessary. Overall, they realize not too many cities are doing it manually anymore.”
She added some residents just wanted to make sure the city applied for grants.
The transition will mean a cleaner city after the transition since animals would get into the trash bags sitting out and drag the trash around. Additional benefits are work-related injuries will go down, increased efficiency will be realized and there will be faster collections. With the automated system, the city will be able to knock a route or two off. With the current trucks, one person is having to jump on and off, which is slower and contributes to safety factors.
Several other communities made the move to automation last year, including Bangor. For Bangor, the decision to automate its trash collection was due to financial and labor concerns.
Aaron Huotari, director of public works, was not in his position yet when the decision was made in late 2019 to automate. The city went live with the new system in July 2020. The city has contracted its trash collection since 1995. Huotari said he was told the decision was made for various reasons — one of which was excess trash due to neighborliness.
He said surrounding towns started charging per bag of trash, so Bangor residents started telling their friends and family to bring their trash to their houses to be disposed of.
“Our trash volume went up. Garbage bags were sitting on sidewalks — it was a sanitary concern,” he said.
Also, labor was an issue as the contractor was having trouble finding workers for manual trash collection. Huotari said it’s a pretty physical job. “There’s a lot of walking in all kinds of weather.”
The city has been with the same trash contractor since it gave up in-house trash collection, and the contractor suggested the change as it was doing so in nearby communities. COVID-19 almost ground the project to a halt as city officials wondered how to get the bins delivered, “but because it was mostly outside, we went forward with our plans,” Huotari said.
When they arrived, the 96-gallon bins were handed out to residents, though some wanted a smaller size. After delivery, Huotari said adjustments were made for those who requested it.
According to Huotari, it’s been a good move for the city. It’ll be saving the city an estimated $172,101 over five years due to the contractor reducing labor costs.
He noted the volume of trash has gone down, too. Since residents have to fit all their trash inside the container, they’ve stopped allowing others to bring trash over.
The general consensus is the city is somewhat cleaner with the blue bins — trash bags are not piling up.
“The council is happy with it,” he said. “I don’t know that we’d go back the other way — this is more sanitary.”
The only negative he’s aware of are complaints from about 1% of the population who can’t fit all their trash in the one 96-gallon bin. They can have an additional bin for a small charge.
Huotari said while he’s only been in his position about seven to eight months, he feels like the automated trash collection is “overwhelmingly good and welcomed by our citizens.”
Clinkscale had these words of wisdom for those considering making the shift. “Do some due diligence — get the community involved, so they understand what it takes to operate and to do automation.”
She said meetings were held with city staff to address any questions, and they were open to the public. Having that community involvement really “helped the process go smoothly.” She said bringing in a company to do the rate
analysis — so officials had the data to support why the city was asking for the rate increase — was also helpful.
“All those things helped the process go smoothly,” she said.