TAMPA — One month after its shaky rollout, Hillsborough County’s massive conversion to automated garbage collection is looking more like the success county officials predicted.
Customer complaint calls, which once flooded county and private-hauler help lines, have declined by 78 percent. Behind the tumult, the one-operator trucks at the center of the new system are quietly going about their work, snatching and overturning the wheeled plastic garbage carts provided by the county and spilling not a smidgen of trash on suburban lawns.
“It’s been a great success,” said John Lyons, director of Public Works, who oversaw the transition to automated pick up. “It’s an orderly way for us to do work.”
The three private hauling companies that won contracts to pick up garbage were working on new routes and they missed some neighborhoods entirely. Crews were still collecting garbage well into the night as mechanical breakdowns contributed to the chaos.
And, because of flaws in the county’s customer database, many homes didn’t get their garbage and recycling carts before the Oct. 1 kickoff.
Most of the glitches have been fixed, Lyons said, although some homes still aren’t on the database. Homes built since the database was created need to be added.
Figures provided by the county show complaints have come down from a total of 4,002 in the first week of automated service to 889 four weeks later. Though that still sounds like a lot, the calls represent just one-third of 1 percent of the 260,000 county garbage customers.
“In the next week, as we find any gaps in our customer database, those will be caught up,” Lyons said. “We will be fully automated next week.”
Last year, county commissioners decided to bid out garbage collection instead of renewing contracts for the three private haulers who had handled the work since 1996. Though those same three companies won the contracts this time, their bids lowered customers’ annual garbage fee by about $8.42 from the previous year.
One of the contract’s requirements was for haulers to convert to automated vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas or another alternative fuel. Besides the environmental benefits, the new garbage trucks are quieter and safer because one driver can handle the whole operation from inside the truck’s cab. That cuts down on worker’s compensation claims, said Steven Serafino, North Florida district manager for Progressive Waste Solutions.
“In this environment (the driver’s) protected,” Serafino said. “It’s removing them from the hypodermic needles and the back injuries. That’s a huge benefit.”
Unlike side-loading trucks, such as those used by the city of Tampa, the county haulers use front-loading square hoppers called Curotto-Cans, named for the company in California that devised them.
The cans ride in front of the cab as the truck rolls alongside the home garbage carts. A mechanical grabber shoots out from the side of the Curotto-Can and clamps around the garbage cart. The cart is flipped, its contents drop into the can, then it’s placed back in exactly the same spot.
Under the old system, garbage cans were often tossed on the lawn and rolled into the street.
“We’ve gotten calls from people who thought cans hadn’t been picked up on the whole street because these cans are set back in the same place with the tops down,” Serafino said.
Progressive drivers control the mechanical grabber with one hand on a lever with several buttons. Driver Noel Megias demonstrated the process for a visitor during a recent ride-along.
Megias barely moved the lever and the mechanical grabber jumped out, clamping loudly around the garbage cart, squeezing the plastic. He flicked the lever the other way and the cart swung up and over, emptying, then settling back in the same spot. The whole process takes five to six seconds.
After dumping 10 to 12 trash carts, Megias used the lever to bring the Curotto-Can up over the cab, emptying the garbage into the back of the truck for compacting.
The truck’s technical wizardry doesn’t end with the grabbing and dumping. Megias has a screen before him with four views of the truck: the two sides, the back and an overhead camera showing the compaction.
What’s more, each of the garbage and recycling carts supplied to customers has a radio frequency identification tab so the company can keep track of which carts are emptied when.
Serafino calls it a “bread crumb trail for the truck.”
“You know where he’s been and what he’s dumped,” Serafino said.
The chips also allow the company to track who recycles. Both the companies and the county want to promote recycling because it makes money.
Megias pulled up to a house in the Panther Trace neighborhood in Riverview where two old-style garbage cans sat next to the new county containers. The old cans are full of garbage and resident Mike Smith asks Megias and Serafino if they can haul it away.
Serafino agrees and helps Megias dump the cans into the Curotto-Can.
In the process, Serafino drops a fluorescent bulb and it shatters on the street. He grabs a broom and dust pan from the side of truck and sweeps up the glass.
“Sorry for making that mess,” he told Smith with a sheepish grin. “Rookie mistake.”
Though many customers complained at the outset about the size of the 96-gallon garbage carts, Smith said he’s been impressed with the carts and the whole automated system.
“It works well; it’s much more efficient,” Smith said. “And I think it will encourage people to recycle more because now they don’t need to separate.”