Solid Waste & Recycling



Consider these goals: reduced workers' compensation; recruitment made easier; decreased absenteeism; increased diversion rates; cleaner neighbourhoods; "positive greening" and an increase in generated...

Consider these goals: reduced workers’ compensation; recruitment made easier; decreased absenteeism; increased diversion rates; cleaner neighbourhoods; “positive greening” and an increase in generated savings. Refuse and recyclables collection may be one of the few municipal service that can be improved while generating savings. How? By implementing automated collection.

Many municipalities, large and small, as well as private haulers across North America, have been experiencing the benefits of an automated collection system: a refuse truck with an automated arm collecting wheeled carts at curbside, in which the driver almost never has to leave the vehicle. (See article, page 46.)

Compared to other industries, “refuse and recyclable material collectors” have the fifth highest rate on-the-job fatalities (commercial fishing being first), and show 7.1 per 100 injured employees, reported in the 2006 National Census of Fatal Injuries by the Bureau of Labor Statistics Injuries include such things as being struck by a vehicle, falling off a truck, harm sustained while lifting or pulling heavy/bulky trash, being crushed against a container, being injured by contaminated sharp objects, or heat stroke and other effects from hot or inclement weather.”

As stated by Paul Jenks, the former CEO of Veolia/Onyx North America: “When we ask operators to push, pull or lift, they are straining already-sore muscles. Automation is a safer way of picking up the waste, and it will be reflected in how much less a fleet will pay in workers’ compensation or suffer from lost days due to injuries. That translates into a lot of savings.”


Automated collection offers many benefits. It improves the quality of life for operators; on a basic level, drivers clothing isn’t impregnated as heavily with odours and they suffer fewer body aches.

Many Canadian municipalities, especially in the Maritimes, are experiencing a serious shortage of workers in sanitation. Going automated increases the pool of drivers; more women become automated collection truck operators as more brain power becomes more important than muscles!

Isn’t the prospect of getting rid of messy streets on set-out day attractive? Implementing wheeled carts collected by an automated truck reduces litter and unsightly set-outs in serviced areas, increases the number of recycling collection days per month and enhances community satisfaction.

The cost of an automated truck fleet with carts plus the training of operations and mechanics staff (and residents), maintaining the trucks, stocking parts, inventory management, and collecting in those difficult and hard-to-reach routes, are far outweighed by the benefits introduced by employing only one person per vehicle.

North American statistics demonstrate that one back injury is worth two automated trucks!

Maintaining the program

One must keep in mind that implementing an automated system is a serious process. Getting and keeping everyone’s “buy in” at both the city council and public works levels. One must address any disadvantages of such a system and educate residents — key elements that can make of break the program. In most cases, about two years are needed to turn over a collection program.

As for drivers, they now have no buddies to talk too, and are basically being asked to do 30 to 40 per cent more work, and to cover an additional 25 kms a day! So, more and more municipalities are doing things differently to support these workers:

* Invest in a CD/radio system or allow communication with fellow operators;

* Print the name of the operator on the doors of the truck (adds to the feeling of belonging and does wonder in maintaining the vehicle);

* Offer quarterly cash incentives or gift certificates when no accident or injury occurs.

The other expected downside for “15 to 20 years on the job” drivers has to do with working the “joystick” to operate the mechanical arm. Their kids and/or grandkids are a whiz with such tools, but what about them? Today, there’s a wide choice of automated equipment; with the proper training, everybody can handle these types of arms.

Carts and automated trucks require upfront costs. Deploying 5,000 carts, as an example, is expensive and also requires proper data management to facilitate delivery and follow up. As for automated trucks, increased hydraulic complexity will raise the purchase price and maintenance costs. Most cart manufacturers offer financing programs and pilot project programs that can be quite advantageous. Municipalities also have the choice of making the carts mandatory or not. And fleet size is typically reduced because of increased productivity.

Educating the public is crucial. Most people share commons concerns: an expectation that the reduction in costs should translate into tax cuts, lower collection charges, or some other form of customer rebate; large carts may be hard to manoeuvre, especially for elderly or physically disabled residents; not having enough room for all of a household’s refuse in a single cart can be a challenge; even just questioning why a system that “works fine” should be changed.

So, a well orchestrated communication plan must be produced.

Operators play an important role in the new program. While on their routes, drivers should place “Oops” tags on carts that are misplaced or that contain inappropriate materials. Usually one tag is enough to get people to comply.

Customer service representatives are a big part of any automated collection program’s implementation and continued success. It’s imperative to team up to answer phone calls and assist customers while making adjustments to the new program. Junior college students can be hired to participate in an evening training program along with sanitation department staff. Some municipalities had an average of 1,500 to 2,000 calls per day. But after about four months, calls typically drop by 75 per cent. After that, most calls become requests for basic information or to clarify instructions.

Madeleine Szots is Marketing Director for the Labrie Environmental Group in St. Nicolas, Quebec. Contact Madeline at

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