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It’s been nearly eight months since the City of Minot made major changes to its method of collecting residential garbage.
Gone are the old days of workers riding on the backs of trucks in all sorts of weather, hopping on and off endless times during the day to toss bags of trash, boxes, and other waste into the back of the truck by hand.
That system has been replaced with an automated collection system, with drivers using new trucks with mechanical arms to dump waste carts that come in standard sizes.
During the lead-up to the switch, City employees and officials touted the many benefits of the new system. It will be more efficient, they said. It will be safer for employees. It will help keep the city cleaner.
Eight months later?
“The automated system has done exactly what we said it would do,” said John Reynolds, Superintendent of the Sanitation Department. “Our streets are cleaner. We’re able to do the job much more efficiently with a streamlined work force, and it’s safer for our employees.”
Reynolds said the City previously averaged between 35 and 45 claims annually with North Dakota Workforce Safety & Insurance from work-related injuries in the Sanitation Department.
“We haven’t had a single Workforce Safety claim since we started this new system,” Reynolds said. “Not one claim has been on the new trucks since we started on July 17. That’s eight months ago.”
Reynolds said other cities are coming to Minot to study the new system to gain input and knowledge on the software incorporated into the collection system. The software helps identify if carts are out for collection or if a cart has been moved from one address to another. Through a microchip in the cart, the software uses GPS to determine if a cart is at the correct address. Officials from Dickinson and Fargo have been here, and those cities are working on implementing Minot’s technology into their systems.
“Minot is on the cutting edge of sanitation technology right now,” Reynolds said. “We can use the technology to help educate our residents and ourselves on how the system works.”
While there were some concerns about the new system initially, Reynolds said nearly all of the interactions his department now has with residents are about details of the system. Where should the carts be placed? What can and can’t be put in the carts? Why should cardboard boxes be broken down before being put into the carts?
“Honestly, right now the biggest issues we’re having is carts that are placed backwards and lids being open,” Reynolds said. “When carts are placed sideways or cart lids are left open they can become damaged in the dumping process.”
While those things may not seem like a big deal, Reynolds said carts that are placed backwards are nearly impossible to safely empty because they can be damaged when the lid flops open the wrong way and hits the truck’s hopper. And carts that are over-filled can also be tricky to dump, since contents often fall out while the cart is being lifted.
Overall, the system is working very well, while a few bugs are still being worked out. It’s been a learning process for everyone, Reynolds said, including residents and his employees.
“I tell my guys all the time: I’m really proud of how far they’ve come since last summer,” Reynolds said. “We threw a lot of new stuff at them last summer, and they’ve picked up on everything we’ve asked them do to.”
Zephania Oange has been working in the Sanitation Department since September 2014. He’s worked on the back of the garbage collection truck, and now drives one of the new trucks.
“Sometimes I miss being on the back of the truck and working with the other guys, but not on days like today,” he said while driving a collection route in southwest Minot on a windy February day where the temperature was barely above zero.
Originally from Kenya, Oange said the cold temperatures of North Dakota are something he’s still getting used to, another reason he appreciates the new system that allows him to remain in the cab of the truck most of the time.
The technology inside the new trucks is impressive; it’s kind of like playing a big video game. From his seat, Oange uses a joystick to operate mechanical arms on either side of the truck to grab, lift, and dump trash-filled carts into the back of the truck, then return the carts to the ground. The trucks have four cameras that constantly record video. Drivers use a computer touch screen to take photos of every location that doesn’t have a cart sitting near the curb, or to take photos of carts that are so over-stuffed with items that they cannot be safely dumped.
“When the driver stops at my house, and my cart isn’t out, the truck will register that the cart isn’t out there,” said Reynolds. “The drivers take a photo, too. Through photos and video, we now have 100% confirmation of every stop on every route, every day.”
That information can be valuable to his department, Reynolds said, both in learning how to best utilize the system and to help residents understand how the system works.
“For instance, we’re able to check our daily reports and track misplaced carts and put them back where they belong,” he said. “We can also help explain to a resident who asks ‘Why didn’t you empty my cart” that maybe they accidentally placed their cart backwards on a particular day. The technology is a great learning and educational tool for all of us.”
Reynolds can remotely log into the computer on any truck and view the photos. The truck’s system also keeps a running tab on which carts have been dumped, and which ones have yet to be emptied. At the end of a route, the system tells the driver if he’s missed any carts. Oange said he doesn’t need the computer to tell him that information.
“I know these routes backwards and forwards,” he said. “I know in my head if I’ve missed a cart.”
On this day in February, Oange used a combination of new technology and good, old-fashioned customer service on his route. Several times he stopped the truck, and hopped out to retrieve a cart that was flagged in his system as part of Minot’s valet system, which is designed to help residents who are physically unable to move their cart to the street to be emptied.
At another point, Oange stopped the truck, and ran across the street to stand up a cart that had fallen over.
“I just want to make sure the cart is out of the way of any traffic so it doesn’t get damaged,” he said.
Oange said the new system allows him to be more efficient. On Thursdays and Fridays, he begins his routes at 7 a.m. and is done by noon. Routes on Mondays and Tuesdays take a little longer, since there are usually more carts to empty after the weekend. On those days he’s usually done by 1:30 p.m. The increased efficiency allows more time to perform valuable truck maintenance duties, including greasing, pressure washing, and fueling at the end of the day in preparation for the next day’s routes.
Cul-de-sacs can be tricky, Oange said, as they aren’t necessarily designed for trucks. Picking up carts placed close to fences or other objects takes practice, too, he said. And parked cars are a constant obstacle.
“But you learn the little tricks of how to pick up the cart without touching anything else, and how to pick up the over-filled carts without spilling anything,” Oange said. “The new system is so much better.”