Wednesday, April 24, 2024

City proposes automated trash service to the tune of $360K per truck

The City of Wilmington is looking to change its trash pickup service from what is used today, semi-automated with three staff per truck, to automated. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — To increase efficiency — and potentially save money — the city is considering switching to automated trash service.

It would take a little more than $3 million to purchase nine new trucks. Despite concerns from the city council, no city positions are planned to be cut. Routes would be revamped, and likely half of the city’s customers would have their collection day changed.

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In the long run, the city could save financially, according to a consultant firm. Representatives revealed with a less risky job set up, in turn avoiding injuries and workers compensation claims, and fewer temp workers needed, they have seen cost savings in other cities.

Raftelis Financial Consultants Inc., a management consultant group from Charlotte, was originally hired by the city in the fiscal year 2021 budget for $106,000 to review the collections’ program rate model. The company assists local governments and utilities with finance, assessment, communications, technology, executive recruitment, and strategic planning.

Its second task, contracted for $100,000, was to analyze the current routes, optimize them and assess the way the city currently operates. The company reviewed the city’s trash collection, recycling program, yard waste, bulky items pickup and downtown services.

Currently, Wilmington operates nine semi-automated routes four days a week. Each garbage truck is manned by one driver and two “helpers” who jump out to collect and dump the receptacles. Raftelis is recommending the city convert to an automated system.

Representative Jonathan Ingram and Kevin Callen with Route Optimization Consultants explained the current semi-automated system is inefficient, takes up to 8.5 hours to complete and poses safety and health risks for workers.

Based on interviews with current recycling and trash services staff, employees told Raftelis that 77% of customers in Wilmington would be able to be serviced by an automated truck. Callen said he estimated closer to 88%.

The new system would have one truck driver run each route solo. The operator uses an automated “arm” on the side of the vehicle to dispose trash from the cans.

“Crews are worried when we go to automation,” Callen said. “They have to learn how to use the joystick while driving. It can be daunting and intimidating. But we all realize it’s easier.”

The transition for employees could take up to a year for training.

The main issue is the conversion can’t happen without changing customers’ trash pickup days. Out of the city’s roughly 32,000 customers, 18,121 would be impacted by a collection day change.

The majority of downtown would remain semi-automated due to the street setup, spacing and number of customers.

Raftelis suggested eight routes daily, with six automated and two semi-automated.

Ingram explained other added benefits of the automated system include fewer injuries, leading to the reduction of worker compensation claims and associated costs with a less labor-intensive job.

He used the example of Greenville, which saw a 90% reduction in claims in the first year, which resulted in a $190,000 savings. The risk is also lessened for traffic-related injuries. With the modernized approach, employees wouldn’t have to exit the truck and cross roadways to grab trash carts.

“It also increases the recruiting pool of potential employees who can do this work,” Ingram told council.

Reduction of hours, ultimately reducing the number of needed staff, is another benefit; however, the notion raised some concern.

“When you go back to automated, you will lose people? Staff?” Council member Clifford Barnett asked. “They’re out of a job?”

Director of Public Services Dave Mayes told council the department currently contracts with a temporary labor firm that provides part-time workers. City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron said the city typically uses 10 to 20 temporary staff from contracted provider The Reserves Network. Temp workers are used eight hours a day, four days per week; the need varies seasonally, and is dependent on position vacancies and employee leave, she added.

“There’s a great deal of turnover,” Mayes told council Monday. “For individuals losing their jobs, the likelihood is low.”

Spears said even temporary workers need jobs, though.

“We’re still filling a void in the job market,” he said. “And I don’t want to see that go away. We really need to consider that. To be honest, I’m a proponent for people and hiring people and allowing people to have an opportunity.”

The recycling and trash services division currently has 75 full-time workers.

“It’s a challenge,” Mayes said of employment. “We routinely struggle to get enough people to put on trucks. Not just because of staff pulling in from temporary work, but also because of our staff.”

Often there is only one helper available per truck, causing the driver to have to jump in and out hundreds of times to assist.

“This job is very physical,” Mays said.

Ingram used the example of Greenville again, noting prior to automation, a three-person crew was collecting at 500 to 600 houses daily. With the upgrade of one person driving an automated truck, he or she would be able to service up to 1,000 houses.

The automated trucks, averaging $360,000 each, compared to $235,000 for the traditional vehicles, would also require extensive training for operating crew and maintenance staff. Mays told council the department has a health fund balance of 53.8% and could purchase the nine needed trucks outright. There is an up-to 12-month wait period for their arrival, though.

Council member Luke Waddell was in full support.

“Seems like a no-brainer to me,” he said. “You have the funds in reserve now, you’re increasing efficiency and service to taxpayers, and it’s ultimately less expensive to taxpayers; you’re leveraging growth. I don’t see a downside whatsoever.”

Caudle noted the only negative aspect would be customer complaints from residents. It will take some getting used to changing up collection days.

The timeline, if adopted by council, would be to purchase the vehicles in January and finalize a new route map by March 2023.

Six months later, Mays said a public outreach campaign would be encouraged, focused on where to place trash carts and how — as they need to be more uniform for the automated arm to grab. He added he hopes to have the new trucks delivered by next December and train employees in January and February 2024.

The goal is to implement the new service by March of 2024.

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