A combination of paper maps and driver familiarity with routes were key to the city of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Solid Waste’s curbside solid waste and recycling collection efforts for many years. The city’s drivers and laborers knew the routes they had to take to service the city’s 210,000 households each week, and collection became second nature for seasoned operators.
In recent years, this method of routing has become less dependable for the city of Baltimore, though. John Chalmers, head of the city’s Bureau of Solid Waste, says higher rates of employee turnover have made it difficult to train new drivers on the city’s solid waste and recycling collection routes.
He adds that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic amplified those challenges last year.
“It was a tough time,” he says. “We had our challenges with turnover before COVID. COVID was the last straw. When COVID hit, we had to shut down an entire facility. When that happens, you just don’t have the resources to manage services. So, we had to figure out what was most important.”
Navigating a pandemic
Chalmers says one of the city’s service yards had a COVID-19 outbreak in June 2020.
“I had to shut down so employees could quarantine,” he says of that incident.
As a result, Chalmers says, the division went from 230 employees to between 94 and 110 employees out on the road daily. The division had some substitute laborers and drivers come in as well, many of whom were unfamiliar with the city’s collection routes. To make things more difficult, he says the city’s semiautomated collection trucks lacked electronic routing and GPS, making it difficult on his employees to do the jobs efficiently.
Chalmers adds that training and getting substitute drivers and laborers up to speed was challenging. He notes that “there’s a science” behind routing that a substitute driver or laborer might not pick up on.
“The work routine services folks perform on a daily basis is labor-intensive, whether you are routing the truck or you’re behind the truck,” he says. “Baltimore is unique. It’s a historic city and has very narrow and tight alleys. When we brought on drivers from other operations they: One, were not mentally prepared for the task, and two, they weren’t physically prepared for the task and the drivers had to turn things around fast in areas they weren’t familiar with. You put all of that into one bag, there’s a lot of confusion and frustration. That’s what we had to deal with.”
In response to COVID-19 outbreaks, he says the city had to suspend curbside recycling collection services in September 2020 to prioritize trash collection. As an alternative, he adds that the city implemented 14 recycling drop-off locations in each of its council districts for residents who still wanted to recycle.
In addition, the city issued an emergency procurement that enabled the bureau to invest in Rubicon Global Inc.’s routing software on Aug. 27, 2020, which Chalmers says was valued at $1.04 million. The software was installed on about 140 solid waste and recycling collection vehicles last fall and winter.
“The buy-in [from the city] on this technology was instant,” Chalmers says. “I went to them and said, ‘This is what we need.’ It wasn’t a tough sell at all. The mayor said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Chalmers says Rubicon’s software offered many benefits he liked: It records data in real time on things such as a vehicle’s status and maintenance needs. It allows his bureau to identify areas where it can improve its services to Baltimore’s residents; it provides a way to digitize tonnage tickets, rather than the bureau’s method of manually entering tonnage tickets into a spreadsheet for tracking; and it enables the bureau to understand patterns of how much waste and recycling materials are collected throughout the city.
“We’re proud to work with the city of Baltimore,” says Conor Riffle, vice president of Rubicon. “The pandemic hit the city hard, just like it’s hit so many municipalities. Departments have been hit hard by COVID. I think part of the challenge in a place like Baltimore is a lot of those routes they run every day are run by folks who may keep routes in their heads. When new drivers are out [on the road], they don’t know what route to take.”
He continues, “Digitizing the routes in Baltimore for the city was a high priority as the reality of COVID started to sink in.”
The city implemented the technology in its trucks in the fall. Chalmers says he has a goal of right-sizing routes based on data gathered from the software by the end of this summer in order to give his employees a tool that helps them and a tool that helps the bureau improve efficiencies.
Software training and implementation
Once the city of Baltimore added Rubicon software to its fleet of waste and recycling collection vehicles, Chalmers says his bureau took time to train employees on the new software. He stresses that it was important he had buy-in from all of his employees when integrating the Rubicon software.
“We had multiple trainings with drivers, supervisors and upper management,” Chalmers says. “I’ve been in this business for over 33 years, and my grandma used to say that you never put the cart before the horse. I always live by that. So, before you start any program, you must get buy-in from the users. So, we started with the drivers and the supervisors.”
Training during a pandemic had unique challenges, as well. Chalmers says he needed to find a training location where he could safely socially distance employees and Rubicon representatives. With schools temporarily suspended due to COVID-19, he says the bureau was able to use local school cafeterias to host Rubicon training sessions.
Chalmers adds that he made sure to kick off each training session by talking about the benefits and needs for Rubicon’s software before Rubicon trained employees how to use the new program.
“The first step in optimizing solid waste operations in any way is by involving the front-line supervisors and explaining the benefit of the new program or change,” Chalmers says.
Riffle says he and his team then provided the city’s employees with best practices on using Rubicon software.
“We’ve trained 100 percent of the drivers in the city of Baltimore, all supervisors, all back-office staff,” Riffle says. “They’re all users on our portal and are using the system every day.”
He adds, “At any point, we are happy to help provide more training to help them get the most out of the software and platform.”
Eye on right-sized routes
Chalmers says applying the Rubicon software to Baltimore’s fleet has yielded impressive results thus far. He adds that the city also resumed curbside collection of recycling in January.
Since the fall, he says his team has gathered data from Rubicon’s software. Chalmers adds that he hopes to analyze that data by the end of summer to update the city’s waste and recycling collection routes.
He adds that it has been many years since the city last updated its waste and recycling collection routes.
“I started back here in 1987, and our routes haven’t been updated for quite some time,” Chalmers says. “The last time I adjusted routes was basically bringing in the entire team of one section, talking to the drivers, looking at a map and moving a line here and trying to look at tonnage tickets to make it happen. That is not the most efficient way to [update routes], but that’s how we adjusted our routes back then.”
There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach that can be taken to right-size a route, either. Chalmers says each municipality is different and many factors can affect what makes the best service route. Things can even vary within a single city.
“For example, down in parts of southeast Baltimore, they have angled parking,” he says. “Because of that, we have to walk all of the trash to the end of the block to pull them to the trucks. [Employees] spend more time on that route as opposed to working in the northern portion of the city where they have big streets, big alleys. So, you have to roll all factors into play with routing.”
Some other factors include total route times, right turns and tonnage reports. Another factor is exceptions—how many stops have exceptions, such as forgetting to put a bin out on time for collection.
Other factors to consider include the material recovery facility (MRF) that’s used for recycling, the landfill that is used for solid waste, the waste-to-energy facility and the transfer station where the material might be sent.
Chalmers concludes, “I look forward to the day when we gather all of this data. The goal of this is not only to provide our crews with a very good tool to get them through their day but also to allow us to right-size our routes. Right now, our routes are unbalanced, and we really need to balance our routes. We want to make sure we are not overworking our workforce, and we want to provide efficient services to the residents of Baltimore.”