Automating Recycling Credits at Curbside

Article excerpt

In 1982, St, Louis Park, Minnesota, was one of the first municipal governments in the country to implement a curbside recycling program. It ran with relative success throughout the 1980s, but the city wanted to do better than the initial 45 percent participations rate.

In an effort to attain this goal, in December 1987 the St. Louis Park city council passed an ordinance that would award a $6.60 quarterly credit to citizens who recycled at least once a month.

Overnight, recycling gained immense popularity, and manual methods of record keeping were overwhelmed. A way had to be found to automate the entire recycling participation data-collection process.

The problem faced by the city's management information services (MIS) office and the recycling collection contractor was time. Once the directive was passed, only two months were allowed to implement a recycling data-collection and tabulation program in coordination with the existing refuse billing system.

Tracking the recycling efforts of more than 12,000 customers along 125 miles of city streets in what is often extreme weather conditions was a tall order. Adding to the urgency was the fact that St. Louis Park's citizens expected to see the credits on their utility bills right away.

Manual Madness

At the start of the program, recycling collectors had to manually mark off who was recycling. The collectors had to find the home addresses of participating residents, which often weren't easily visible.

The time that it took to gather this information accurately--not to mentioned the extra time to collect the higher volume of recyclables--was like putting a ball and chain on the recycling collectors and route completion times were slowed tremendously.

Once the data were tabulated on the collectors' sheets, the information had to be transposed to PCs running the Condor relational database management system. Surprisingly, this extra transposition step turned out to be the most expensive part of the new process. A cost projection analysis showed data-entry costs alone were running $36,000 a year.

As the record keeping struggled along, the recycling program was becoming more popular than ever--almost too popular. Participation rates were growing, and by September 1990, 90 percent of utility customers were recycling at least once per month to take advantage of the credit. The time it was taking to collect the data and make sure it was recorded properly to meet the billing cycle was becoming a cost burden for the city and a morale breaker for recycling collectors. There had to be a better way.

Interim Solution for Billing Choke

The need for some action was becoming critical. A solution had to be found as quickly as possible without interrupting the collection and billing process--which was already at the choking point.

The first step was an interim solution. The recycling data were uploaded to the utility billing system, operated by LOGIS (Local Government Information System)--a 21-city consortium in the Twin Cities area. The LOGIS system uses Hewlett-Packard's HP 3000 Series 900 minicomputers, which run PA-RISC (Precision Architecture-Reduced Instruction Set Computing). The MIS department found that PA-RISC offers significant performance improvements over non-RISC architectures while continuing to drive the cost of computing downward.

The city's geographic information system (GIS), was used to create record sheets with customer addresses in the order of the collection routes. Collectors checked off addresses as they went along their routes, and the data were then consolidated into an ASCII file and uploaded to the utility billing system on the LOGIS system where customers' credits could be accounted for.

But there was still a missing link to efficiency. An automated one-time data-collection process was needed--right where the collectors, cans, bottles and paper came together in the field. …