Technology in a Can

Crunching route and collection numbers and improving efficiency with technology and software

Credit: Otto USA

Credit: Otto USA

Challenges and opportunities are coming your way—every system has them. But as a manager, the measure of your success, maybe even your job, can come down to how well you deal with them.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” or so said the late Peter Drucker. If asked to elaborate, I believe he would have affirmed that while measuring is important, what you measure is even more critical.

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Consider your residential collections routes. We often hear a residential route manager discuss productivity on the route level. Something along the lines of, “I currently have 11 automated routes, but would like to cut it back to 10.” That’s a great goal, though a bit light on the details. It’s like saying, “You weigh 195 pounds, but you should really get down to 175.” It’s a good aspiration to have, but is not likely to happen without getting more specific on diet and exercise. Without specifics, the manager can only tell his drivers to work faster and make more lifts. Instructions like this are unlikely to produce results.

So, let’s talk details. On those 11 routes, the average driver will make approximately 1,000 lifts per day. It could be a bit more or less, but let’s keep the math simple.

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That works out to 5,000 per week—or 260,000 per year. Over a 25-year career, that driver will make something like 6.5 million lifts!

Credit: iStock

Credit: iStock

For the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of our local Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team. We all train in technical rope rescue, swift-water rescue, and other survival scenarios, but the backbone of the team is boots on the ground. At a moment’s notice, the pager can buzz, and, if we are available—it is, after all, a team of volunteers—we’ll grab our 72-hour pack, and go.

For you flatlanders who don’t know: A 72-hour pack has enough gear and food to allow you to stay in the field for 72 hours—rain or shine, snow or sun. And, it also includes an assortment of rescue gear, more or less evenly spread out among the team. So, by the time we have what we need—along with ropes, harnesses, first aid, etc.—our 72-hour packs literally are…packed. In this situation, weight matters.

So, we carry a single titanium cup for coffee, soup, water, oatmeal, and such, and a toothbrush with half the handle cut off. We pack small multi-tools, ultralight shelters, and the thinnest sleeping bag the season will allow. Item by item, we trim down the weight, because, as we often say, “Ounces make pounds, and pounds make pain.” Little things add up.

In a way, it’s much like the waste collections business. Those 11 residential routes that each cost you $1,000 a day, aren’t just routes—they’re 11 pre-trip inspections and 11,000 lifts per day. They include picking up spilled cans and circling back for a handful of missed stops. There are 20 or so trips to the landfill, waiting in line at the scale, backing into position, dumping, cleaning out…you get the idea.

And, so do the managers who have their routes streamlined into optimized perfection. They didn’t accomplish a high level of efficiency by focusing on the route in general terms, but by specifically optimizing each little piece it’s made up of. Because they also know that little things add up.

That’s what those automated routes look like under a magnifying glass. Now, let’s move over to the microscope. You remember high school biology class…pond water? It looked clean enough to drink, until you put a drop under the microscope and saw all that wildlife swimming around. Whoa! You had never realized how much activity was there…in one little drop of water. You didn’t know it was there, because you had never looked that closely before.

Now, let’s look closely at one of the most basic activities on a route—an individual lift. A good number of folks, who should know better, think that a lift is the smallest component of a residential route. They must have been sleeping through biology class. Actually, there is a lot more activity, in what we might otherwise refer to as a simple lift—if you make the effort to look closely.

Every one of those lifts is made up of, at best, 18 separate steps. At best because the count goes up if there is a spilled can, another can is in the way, a car is in the way, a can falls into the hopper, there are traffic delays, or some other constraint…you know Murphy:

1. Target next can
2. Approach
3. Stop
4. Look for obstructions
5. Unfold
6. Extend arm
7. Grab
8. Retract arm
9. Lift
10. Dump
11. Lower
12. Extend arm
13. Release can
14. Retract arm
15. Fold
16. Check your mirror
17. Release brake
18. Accelerate, and then…target the next can

Perhaps you never thought through this level of detail—many managers haven’t. But without it, you can’t really make the improvements that will translate to cost savings and improved safety. Each individual lift may take 20+ seconds. No big deal, except that each of your drivers may—over his/her career—spend 36,000 hours performing that same lift over and over, 6.5 million times! If you want to have an impact on your driver’s performance, and improve your bottom line, you need to understand these details. Because that’s where change happens.

A doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, but he’s not just treating the infection. He is zeroing in on the specific type of bacteria causing the infection, and killing off those tiny organisms, one cell at a time, because that’s where change happens.

Equipment manufacturers know this, too, and that’s why collection vehicles, routing software—even garbage cans—are getting smarter every year. Companies, such as Otto USA—widely known in the collections industry as manufacturers of great containers—do a lot more than make containers. They can provide repairs, maintenance, and container distribution. They can help you manage your cart and bin inventory by identifying individual residential cans or commercial bins. Otto even provides specialized containers for medical waste or residential food waste.

The things we take for granted—like having a residential cart that works well and is durable enough to last for years—are made possible because there are companies that focus on that part of the industry. Their innovations allow us to run our residential and commercial routes effectively and economically. Those efficiencies we strive to implement are built on the foundation of manufacturers who themselves are always bringing innovation to the table.

Credit: City of AlbuquerqueAutomated side-loader on the route

Credit: City of Albuquerque
Automated side-loader on the route

Consider the benefits brought to our industry by Curotto-Can. If you’re not familiar with this system, it’s sort of a hybrid…somewhere between an automated side-loader truck and commercial front-loader. It’s an automated residential system—mounted on a specialized front-loader bin. It dumps individual cans into the bin, and, after it’s full, the bin itself is dumped into the truck—just like a standard front-loader bin.

“Hmm, interesting,” you think, “but what’s the big deal?” Well, the big deal is time—three or four seconds’ worth.

OK, let’s review: We just broke a lift into 18 individual steps. Look specifically at steps 9, 10, and 11: lift, dump, and lower. The folks that created this hybrid system must have known that it takes about 9 seconds for a traditional automated truck to perform these three steps. But, because the Curotto-Can system only raises each can high enough to dump into a front loader bin, it’s faster than raising every can the full height of the truck. For the Curotto-Can system, lift, dump, and lower takes about 4+ seconds. Of course, every eight or so cans, the Curotto-Can must be dumped—a process that takes 8–10 seconds. This brings the average per-can cycle time (including dumping the bin), to approximately 6 seconds.

If you are starting to squirm, wondering why you’d take time to read an article to save 3 seconds on a lift, remember that you could multiply that savings by 6,500,000 repetitions. We’re talking about saving more than 5,400 hours of lift time over an individual driver’s career. Now then, how many routes are you running? Hmmm, little things really do add up.

There are a couple more benefits to the Curotto-Can system. First, you can broaden your business, moving from commercial (front-loader) into automated residential without having to purchase an automated side-loader truck. Yes, for the cost of the Curotto-Can system and the time it takes to mount the system, hydraulics, and controls, you’re in the automated residential collections business.

“You do have to factor in the savings per can, versus the need to periodically stop and dump the Curotto-Can,” says Ron Proto, a collections operations consultant from Castro Valley, CA.

Second, while he affirms the overall benefits of faster per-can dump times, Proto goes on to explain that “Another great benefit of the Curotto-Can system is that the driver gets a look at the contents of every can—before it goes into the truck.”

Of course, this means the driver can identify or remove contamination from yard waste or recyclables cans, or red-tag a non-compliant can. Is the Curotto-Can system best for every situation? No, and neither is any other system. But on those routes where it works well, some of its benefits can be very compelling. Specialized containers, Curotto-Can systems, and detailed analysis of route processes all have one thing in common—they are all moving us toward increased route efficiency. And just when you thought we were done innovating, container manufacturers introduced yet another tool for the collections business: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).

RFID for Tracking Waste Containers
We are all familiar with RFID tags and encounter them frequently—most often when shopping. Passive RFID tags are commonly attached to clothing, tools, electronics, and toys. Similarly, RFID chips can be implanted in pets, livestock, even people. Slightly larger than a grain of rice, RFID chips are commonly used to identify pets and livestock. And yes, some people have elected to be implanted—in a few instances as a means of paying for their drinks at some high-class club. Order a beer, wave at the scanner, and you’re good to go. Pulling a $20 out of your wallet has become so uncool. I wonder: After three waves, does it automatically call for a cab?

The RFID industry alone is estimated at around $10 billion per year and is growing rapidly because it provides a valuable service: The ability to track the location and movement of whatever the RFID tag is attached to. Not surprisingly, RFID has come to the waste industry with an increasing number of companies and municipalities using it to mark individual cans.

One innovative company making this possible is IPL Inc. With distribution centers in Canada and the US, IPL reaches across the North American waste industry, providing a wide range of carts for waste and recyclables. Of course, these can be equipped with RFID tags.

Putting RFID on your residential cans offers a number of benefits. First, it provides a solid basis for knowing how many cans are scattered across your routes. This may sounds embarrassingly elementary, but a surprising number of municipal and private collection managers do not know.

You may wonder why this is important for single-family residential customers, because, after all, you’d be quickly notified if a customer did not have a can—or if they were billed for more cans than they wanted. But what about the customer with multiple cans that your driver is servicing unknowingly—and so doesn’t bother reporting that fact back to billing. In this scenario, your RFID database could provide a great cross-check. An RFID-tagged can could be scanned when it is dumped—and if combined with a GPS-enabled route tracking system, would be able to affirm that the can and house match.

Similarly, the GPS could flag the location of any lift that didn’t have a corresponding RFID tag—which would indicate what we’d call a phantom can. It’s a can your driver dumps, but one that you’re not getting paid for.

This problem can be even more difficult to correct when it comes to multifamily housing units where larger cans—and more of them—are the rule. In some cases, we’ve had clients tell us that if a customer from a multifamily unit called in to complain that there weren’t enough cans, they would automatically send more. This may sound like quick, responsive customer service; but, on the other hand, while performing operational efficiency audits, we regularly find multifamily complexes with lines of unmarked cans that are mostly empty, or that have only a bag or two of trash. Unfortunately, if they’re part of an automated route, those cans still have to be dumped. So, is that good customer service … or inefficiency that increases customer cost?

A second benefit is that a truck-mounted RFID reader can record the time and date of every single lift, on every single route. Think about it: daily performance reports to track driver productivity, real-time results regarding your lifts-to-tons ratio, and no more confusion about missed cans. The issue of missed pickups is big, both in terms of cost and public image.

John Soladay, Director of the Solid Waste Management Department for the City of Albuquerque, praises the benefits of RFID. “We ran 100 to 110 missed residential pickups per day—most of which were actually late set-outs by customers,” he says.

Soladay goes on to explain, “Since integrating RFID with GPS, we can now tie together, location of each lift [GPS] with the individual can [RFID]. And as a result, we know what’s happening on our routes.”

All of this technology has allowed the City to improve operations and reduce costs. A driver who arrives at the address of a chronically late customer can take a digital photo of the empty curb. Later, when the customer calls to say their can was missed, a quick check of the truck’s activity—provided by GPS bread crumb tracking and the digital photo—can verify that the driver was there on time…but the can was not. Soladay notes that this has reduced those late set-outs by more than 50%.

RFID on cans allows for the monitoring of cans lost, stolen, or ones that moved from one address to another. It allows drivers to tag cans that are broken or in need of maintenance. And, it allows you to track a number of productivity-related metrics.

You may currently be tracking average lift production, but it’s probably along the line of how many lifts drivers make per day. For example, 1,000 lifts in an eight-hour day works out to 125 lifts per hour. But, if you exclude the time to/from the landfill, and then look at on-the-route production on an hour-by-hour basis, you might find that it ranges from 93 lifts per hour, to 161. This kind of information can be very useful, because it identifies variation. Over the years, we’ve learned that variation often highlights operational problems (i.e., inefficiencies).

Seeing this kind of variation would naturally lead to a follow-up question such as: What conditions are causing the driver to slow to 93 lifts per hour, or allowing the achievement of 161 lifts per hour?

Much of this application is focused on residential collections, where can inventory is important—and potentially much more mobile. On the commercial side, front-loader bins are not what you’d call shopliftable, nor are they as likely to be moved inadvertently to another address. But front-loader bins do potentially have more impact on the bottom line—and RFID tags can help the tracking of commercial accounts in some very specific and effective ways. Beyond the ability to track individual lifts using RFID technology, imagine taking technology one step further. A number of companies offer weighing systems that can be retrofitted to the lift arms on a front-loader truck—allowing you to track the weight of trash in each individual bin. Benefits of this may already be scrolling through your mind, but just in case, here are a few of them:

Fairly charge customers based on weight. The vast majority of landfills and transfer stations charge a per-ton tipping fee. This has always created an opportunity for confusion for commercial collections systems that charge customers by the cubic yard. By combining RFID and a bin-weighing system, you’ll know who is paying their fair share…and who isn’t.

Avoid overloaded trucks. Front loaders are known for potentially running in exceedance of gross vehicle weight limits. No, this isn’t some covert agenda, but moreso the result of customers who may dispose very dense waste in their bins. Without a means of weighing the entire truck—or summing the incremental weight of each bin—loads can run light one day, and heavy the next.

Restaurants, schools, prisons, and similar facilities that produce a high concentration of food waste can really pack a lot of weight into a front-loader bin. What’s more, the weight in a given bin can vary dramatically based on seasonal changes in weather, customer activity, and what day of the week it’s being serviced.

This brings us to another growing consideration in the word of bins—food waste. For some time, commercial operations that generate a lot of food waste have been targeted as the next biggest slice in the diversion pie. Integrating food waste as a compost feedstock is an expanding part of the waste business.

However, when you consider that most people eat most meals at home, it brings to light another source of this targeted waste type—residential food waste. Of course, new opportunities bring new challenges, and one of the biggest is getting individuals to properly separate, store, and dispose food waste so it can be recycled.

Diverting residential food waste is another way to push more organics toward composting—fine. As a side benefit, getting food waste out of the wastestream will help clean up recyclables—and could also help reduce odor complaints at landfills and transfer stations.

But, like many things associated with recycling, people can love the concept, and still hate the tactical steps required to make it work. I’ve thought about those steps, because at our house we do a lot of juicing and blending fruits and veggies. It tastes great and healthy, but that plastic paint bucket in the kitchen is—to use a technical term—gross. We don’t throw food waste in the trash, and it sure can’t go with the recyclables, so scraps go in the bucket. We live in a rural area and have a compost pile. That’s all good, green, and groovy…except for that darn bucket.

Is ours the only family that has to deal with that problem? I doubt it, because a number of container manufacturers have closed the loop by manufacturing curbside containers for food waste.

Innovative companies—like Otto Environmental Systems—reach all the way into residential kitchens with their KC Series Kitchen Pails. Available in two sizes, of approximately 1.5 and 2.25 gallons, these bins are designed to fit conveniently in your kitchen. Some even sport an activated charcoal filter to control odors, bless their hearts. With snug lids and a carry handle, these are user friendly. And user-friendly products get used. This is good marketing, because it’s one more step toward making participation easy.

You might think that, compared to Curotto-Cans and RFID, a little plastic kitchen pail is no big deal. But when it comes to managing waste, these things all play a role. I’ll say it once again, little things add up. MSW_bug_web


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