Potential Improvements to Loose-Leaf Collection

Part of the nextERA Voice Series

ARTICLE | Sep 13, 2018
by Toy Beeninga, Senior Budget and Management Analyst
City of Raleigh

Special credit to: Chris McGee, Steve Halsey, Jason Holmes, Don Mailliard, and RDOT

Autumn is a beautiful season in North Carolina. The crisp air goes down smoothly as you sit back and behold the kaleidoscope of colors painted across the horizon.  The change of seasons and autumn foliage showcase the beauty of nature but also represent a signal to many municipal workers of sixteen grueling weeks of underappreciated work.  As leaves start losing their struggle and begin falling, a group of municipal workers begins the tedious process of collecting, processing, and composting an ever-growing mountain of leaves.

I had the great privilege to spend a few months working with the City of Raleigh’s Department of Transportation reviewing the City’s loose-leaf collection program.  The Department provides two loose leaf collection passes for every neighborhood in the city. Loose-leaf collection requires crews to scoop/vacuum piles of leaves into storage trucks. The storage trucks then transport the leaves to a processing center which attempts to remove non-biodegradable material before the leaves are composted utilizing a windrow and turn technique.  Here are five things I learned about loose leaf collection that may be useful to other municipalities with similar programs. 

  1. Communication: Setting reasonable expectations is a key function of a robust communications campaign.Engagement efforts should include multiple strategies as not every resident will see a Tweet or Facebook post. Mailers that direct residents to a website page with a frequently updated collection map and updates on delays is recommended.If you begin to fall behind schedule, automated phone calls with an updated schedule is also a good practice. Also provide material on alternative ways/places to take bagged leaves if a resident does not want to wait until the next collection pass. Communication is listed first because a good communication strategy may mitigate many of the resident complaints you receive throughout the leaf collection season. Thus, enhancing your communication strategy may be a more cost-effective solution before adding additional staff and equipment.
  2. Route Schedule: Predictability is something we all like in life.Knowing something will occur when we think it was supposed to occur is a well-studied aspect of human psychology.Rotating collection schedules may be seen as a more equitable method of providing service, but generally creates more confusion.If your leaves were collected the first week of November last year, but weren’t collected until the second week of December this year, you may perceive the process is broken, even if it isn’t.Consider building in a few “catch-up” days into your schedule in case you start falling behind.
  3. Data Analysis and Benchmarking: Begin collecting data and reviewing the data on a regular schedule.The data collected will help tell your story and show resource needs.Some useful metrics include:
  • Loads/tons collected per day
  • Loads/tons collected per 10,000 population
  • Loads/tons collected per FTE
  • Leaf collection costs per capita
  • Population/land area per 10,000 population
  • Center Lane Miles maintained
  • Start/end date of the collection season
  • Number of machines/crews (annual)
  • Complaints received per lane miles maintained

A more in-depth data analytics project could include developing collection routes based on tree canopy density. Often newer developments lack established trees, meaning crews can cover more lane miles along that route.  Looking at tree canopy data can help ensure routes are developed factoring in the quantity of leaves along that route, which can help minimize perceived delays when you hit a stretch of road with a significant quantity of leaves.   

    1. Equipment: Municipalities are moving away from three/four-man crews to automated vacuum trucks.The automated vacuum trucks reduce personnel expenses and produce a small gain in efficiency.However, the automated vacuum trucks lose the gain in efficiency in inclement weather as frozen/wet leaves are more difficult to collect/compact.The vacuum trucks also have more moving parts that require more frequent maintenance as the machines age.A program with a mix of vacuum truck crews and three/four-person crews utilizing leaf machines is recommended to provide flexibility depending on the conditions.Maintaining a small reserve fleet of equipment is also recommended to prevent downtime when a machine requires maintenance.This will ensure a maximum number of crews are in the field throughout the collection season.As you build your fleet plan, consider building a small spare fleet by keeping the replaced equipment an extra few years before salvaging.

    These suggestions recognize a few important points: weather is variable (snow/ice is going to slow you down), leaves do not fall at the same time every year (messing up the best scheduling efforts), and not everyone is going to be happy unless you can collect the piles of leaves sitting in their front yard before both Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

    As we identify ways to improve the collection phase, additional areas of improvement may exist in processing and composting the collected leaves.  The collected yard waste must be processed to remove non-biodegradable material.  Failure to remove those materials makes it more difficult to reach the customer’s standard for the composted material; thereby, making it difficult to sell the compost.  Composting also requires a large area and takes months to fully compost.   These are areas requiring more focus in coming years.  The City of Raleigh invested an additional $500,000 (one-time funding) in the loose-leaf collection program in FY 2019 to create a predictable schedule utilizing tree canopy data coupled with a robust communication strategy and purchased some new equipment to build a small reserve fleet to minimize downtime.  The hope is these efforts will enhance service levels for our neighbors in the community.

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