In Fulton, the need for workers to ride on the back of a trash truck is obsolete.
The city of about 12,000 is one of a growing number across the country with an automated trash-collection system.
Instead of using workers to empty trash, the trucks are equipped with a hydraulic arm operated by the driver from inside the cab. The device can pick up a trash can, dump it into the truck and set it back on the curb without the need for anyone to touch the garbage or get out of the truck.
Fulton has been using automated trash collection since 1995. For $10 a month, residents get a 90-gallon receptacle along with weekly trash, recycling and yard-waste service.
Although Columbia has no immediate plans to use automated trash collection, a city public works official said it’s a possibility.
Fulton City Administrator Bill Johnson is sold on the system.
“It is an incredible piece of equipment, and it’s very efficient,” Johnson said. He thinks the automated system in Fulton has eliminated employee injuries and offers other advantages.
“The weather has no bearing on the operator,” he said. “There is almost zero exposure for workers’ compensation. If there are hazardous materials in the trash, the operator has no potential contact.”
J.C. Miller, Fulton’s solid-waste manager, estimates the city’s automated truck picks up between 600 and 650 carts per day. According to Waste Age magazine, automated trucks can pick up 900 to 1,200 carts per day; Columbia picks up more than 700 units a day.
Miller said a conventional truck with workers on board probably wouldn’t be as fast because of the labor-intensive nature of the work.
“When you have guys out there pulling carts and tipping them, they’re going to get worn out,” he said. “This machine doesn’t know it’s supposed to get worn out.”
Because the automated trucks operate with just a driver, Fulton has cut its manpower needs for residential trash collection in half. The reduction in labor offsets the high price of the trucks, Miller said.
Miller estimated that the automated trucks cost about $160,000 to $200,000, compared with about $110,000 for conventional trucks. The automated trucks also require slightly more maintenance because they have more moving parts. Despite the cost of the trucks, Miller estimates Fulton is saving $30,000 to $40,000 a year on labor.
Besides being safer and more sanitary for the operators, Miller said the automated system is efficient. The trucks take about 15 seconds at each house. “It’s a lot neater and cleaner,” Fulton resident Sylvia Hampton said. “People used to pile trash on the street. Now they don’t.”
One disadvantage associated with automated collection is difficulty serving areas with curbside parking because the automated trucks are unable to pick up trash cans when cars are in the way. Miller said most of these problems have been alleviated with the help of Fulton police.
Dennie Pendergrass of the Columbia Public Works Department said automated collection is “something we look at with some degree of regularity.” Although he’s not opposed to the system, he’s unsure of its feasibility in Columbia.
Pendergrass has concerns about parking problems in areas such as East Campus, where an automated truck wouldn’t be useful. That means Columbia would need a mixed fleet with both rear-loaders and automated trucks for residential areas.
“So far, it’s been most efficient for us to stay with what we have,” Pendergrass said, citing the potential cost of replacing part of the existing fleet. He said that if the city did begin using automated collection, the transition would be gradual.
“If we were to go to something like that, we would start off with a couple of trucks, identify areas that can do it, make the transition, see what the equilibrium point would be, and then we could add a few more trucks as it gets going,” he said.