Automating Bulk Trash Collection With Grapple Trucks

March 10, 2015

Thirty-five years ago, Rochester, NY, collected its bulk trash the old-fashioned way-with a six-wheeled open truck, a driver, and three laborers who picked up whatever was left at the curb by heaving it over their shoulders into the truck bed.

“In 1980 we went to two operators on a low-entry, dual-drive, rear-load, packer truck,” recalls Karon Simoni, refuse operations manager in Rochester’s department of environmental services. Although this eased the heavy lifting somewhat, the operators still had to enter and leave the truck repeatedly and physically place the contents of each pile of bulk trash into the truck’s rear hopper.

“In 1988 we built our first grapple truck,” Simoni reports. “The manager at the time, Louie Guilmette, took the body off a 1986 rear-load packer, put a 30-yard open body on the cab and chassis, and mounted a knuckleboom grapple he bought from Petersen Industries Inc., in Lake Wales, FL.

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“We built the first one to see if indeed this was worthwhile. The customers thought it was fantastic, and the refuse collectors who had the benefit of this first boom truck on their route were the happiest guys in city of Rochester refuse history. They went to the union, which demanded that everyone else reap the benefits.”

Rochester started buying additional grapple trucks in 1990. Today, the city has 17 Petersen Lightning Loaders.

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“We had some issues with operators climbing the ladder to the crow’s nest to operate the grapple,” Simoni says. “They would slip on wet or icy steps, depending on the season. A modification was made to the cab in 2003. We raised the roof and added a back door, which allowed the driver to step out onto a platform to operate the grapple. Mr. Guilmette’s idea was christened “˜the Rochester-style cab.'”

With a population of just over 200,000 and occupying a land area of 35.8 square miles, Rochester has 67,000 residential and 3,500 commercial solid waste customers. They generate 21,000 tons of bulk trash a year, about 25% of the city’s total solid waste stream.

The Lightning Loaders collect brush, logs, and other greenwaste, as well as “white goods” (refrigerators, stoves, and other appliances), furniture, mattresses, building materials, boats and boat trailers, and demolished garages. “Whatever people can haul to the curb, we pick it up,” Simoni says.

Rear-Steer Prototype
All of Rochester’s bulk-collection trucks are self-contained, with a driver’s cab, grapple, and open body on a dump-truck chassis. Corpus Christi, TX, has four similar units, but most of that city’s bulk-collection fleet consists of Petersen Lightning Rear Steers that operate in conjunction with separate 25-cubic-yard hauling trucks.

A Rear Steer calls to mind Janus, the god of gates in Roman mythology, depicted on coins and in sculptures with two heads facing in opposite directions. The Rear Steer consists of a standard truck cab facing in one direction, and a second cab with driving and grapple controls facing in the other direction. The operator uses the truck cab for highway travel to a pickup location. Then he turns the vehicle around and drives the route from the rear-facing cab, picking up bulk trash and dropping it into a hauling truck.

Corpus Christi has 10 Rear Steers and 24 hauling trucks. “We send one Rear Steer out with three or four hauling trucks,” says Lawrence Mikolajczyk, director of solid waste operation. “It looks like a caravan coming down the street. The Rear Steer is on the route constantly while the hauling trucks transport the waste to the landfill.

“The self-loaders have a good purpose, but they aren’t a high-volume system. We use them for emergencies, intersection obstructions, and illegal dumping. If someone has blocked a sidewalk so a wheelchair can’t get by, we charge that individual $200 for a callout to dispatch a self-loader for an immediate pickup. This shows up on his next utility bill.

“Also, for $60, we’ll dispatch a self-loader to your residence to pick up a load of brush if you don’t want to wait for your regular collection day.”

Corpus Christi collects bulk trash 10 times a year-roughly once every five weeks. The city is divided into five areas, and each area into five sections. At least five bulk-trash crews are in the field every workday. “Twice a year, in spring and fall, we have a bulky-debris week, when you can put out virtually anything you want short of hazardous waste, including up to four tires, and we’ll pick it up without a charge,” Mikolajczyk says.

Corpus Christi has a population of about 285,000 and a land area of 155 square miles. Mikolajczyk’s operation serves 78,000 residential and 2,200 commercial customers. The total wastestream hauled by city employees is 168,000 tons a year, including up to 41,000 tons a year (24.4% of the total) of bulky debris. Forty-five percent of the bulky debris is brush and other greenwaste.

Mikolajczyk says that many years ago, Corpus Christi collected bulk trash by hand on flatbed trucks. When he arrived in 1993, hauling trucks were being loaded by booms mounted on rubber-tired Case tractors. “They needed constant maintenance,” he says. “We worked with Petersen Industries to develop the Rear Steer. They sent their prototype here for testing. We kept it and bought the first several production models in 1995. Today we still operate two of those original 1995 Rear Steers.”

Rear Steers and Cranes
In Miami, FL, 20 Petersen Rear Steers and a fleet of 42 hauling trucks collect most of the bulk trash. The city has a population of 362,700 in a land area of about 36 square miles, and 69,000 residential customers. The bulk trash they generate, roughly a ton per customer per year, comprises 42% of Miami’s total wastestream.

Furniture predominates by weight. “Vegetation doesn’t generate a lot of tons, but it produces more bulk,” says Mario E. Soldevilla, director of Miami’s solid waste department.

Miami also has two self-contained American Hawk Bulk Waste Cranes manufactured by Automated Waste Equipment Co. Inc., in Trenton, NJ.

“I use the Hawks to help with the traffic flow in older neighborhoods where the streets are very narrow, with tree cover and low-hanging wires,” Soldevilla says. “Also, I use them to do special pickups. We get a lot of illegal material disposed of throughout the city, and it’s more convenient to send one unit versus a Rear Steer and a truck. In 2008, we had 6,985 special pickups-25 to 30 in a day.”

Some of Miami’s current bulk-collection equipment is almost two decades old. Before it was introduced, the city used rear-loaders, each with a driver and two laborers. “Now we have an operator, two truck drivers, and someone who cleans up the residual debris,” Soldevilla says. “It’s actually more manpower, but it works better. We do bulky trash pickup once a week. The benefits are more to our citizens than to the department itself. We try to keep the city clean by picking up all of this material.”Rear-Loaders and Lightning Loaders
For many years, Laredo, TX, used rear-loaders to collect bulk trash, with occasional help for oversized loads from a public works department bulldozer and dump truck. In addition, the city acquired two Petersen Lightning Loaders in 2003 and three more in 2007.

“We have five ZIP Codes,” explains Oscar Medina, manager-solid waste services. “Each is assigned a Lightning Loader that spends all week there, just picking up bulk trash. In addition, rear-loaders sweep the city once a week, picking up anything that will fit-mattresses, small branches, and so forth. When we introduced automated side-loaders for our twice-a-week garbage collection, we took the leftover rear-loaders and started this other service. Instead of laying off people, we added more services.”

Laredo has 233,000 residents in an 84.5-square-mile area. Its solid-waste operation serves 55,000 residential and 1,400 commercial customers.

“In 2008, we collected 25,220 tons of bulk trash, of which 19,811 tons were collected with rear-loaders and 5,409 tons were collected with Lightning Loaders,” Medina says. “Our total residential tonnage was 91,708 tons, so the bulk trash represented 27.5% of the total waste stream we collected.

“About 75% of Laredo’s bulk waste is brush. Even though we receive only 20 inches of rain a year, we’ve been getting a lot of St. Augustine grass lawn clippings, palm fronds, live oaks, and ash trees. People are not xeriscaping.”

The city has a 10-year replacement cycle for its 20 rear-loaders, which were purchased in 2000 and 2001. “Because of the economy, the city council and city manager may want to eliminate the rear-loaders and go to bulk trash drop-off stations,” Medina says. “We’re putting cost estimates together for that. The Lightning Loaders would stay, though.”

Loaders Versus Cranes
Among bulk-trash collection trucks with grapples, industry sources say Petersen commands over half of the market. Others vendors include American Hawk from Automated Waste Equipment Company; Nu-Life Environmental Inc. of Easley, SC; Pac-Mac from HOL-MAC Corp. of Bay Springs, MS; and Prentice, a Caterpillar Forest Products Inc. brand known primarily for forestry and logging equipment.

Some of these companies make loaders; others make cranes. “Cranes tend to have a larger capacity and heavier construction than loaders, and a longer life cycle,” says Fred Fisher, Automated Waste Equipment Co.’s vice president of sales.

Both types of machines have ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards, but the ANSI Z245.1 standard for trash loaders differs from ASME/ANSI B30.22, an American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ standard for cranes.

“Petersen and some other loader manufacturers observe the testing and safety provisions of the crane standards,” says Eric Handler, Petersen Industries’ general manager/vice president. “The differences relate to the equipment’s use.

“ANSI Z245.1 covers use of a loader specifically for mobile waste collection while the ASME/ANSI B30.22 standard covers use of a crane for much broader lifting applications, including use of knuckleboom cranes with winches, cables, slings, and other lifting devices.  Each standard has its uses when applied correctly to a situation. We find that “˜bulky waste cranes’ and loaders have almost identical lift capabilities most of the time.”

Each type of machine has its proponents. Fisher says most American Hawk customers are large cities and counties such as Denver, CO; Miami-Dade County, FL; and Washington, DC, where solid-waste managers want machines with a crane’s characteristics. Other large jurisdictions, including Dallas and Houston, TX; and Detroit, MI, prefer machines with a loader’s characteristics.

When Rochester, NY, chose Lightning Loaders, “the other vehicles available were heavy-duty trucks like those used for logging,” Simoni says. “We weren’t looking for anything quite that heavy and expensive.”

West Palm Beach, FL, has 13 Petersen Lightning Loaders. “We’ve used Lightning Loaders since the early 1990s,” says Bill Thomas, the city’s fleet manager. “They replaced Bucyrus Erie cranes mounted on truck chassis. It took a long time to develop operator skills on those cranes, to learn how to swing and drop the clamshell. Basically, you were running a drag line.”

Forward to the Past
Although grapple trucks represent a widespread revolution in bulk-trash collection technology, some haulers are opting for other alternatives.

Much of unincorporated Palm Beach County, FL, is serviced by Republic Services of Palm Beach (formerly Sunburst Sanitation), a subsidiary of Phoenix, AZ-based Republic Services Inc.

Beginning October 1, 2008, the county limited yardwaste to six cubic yards a week per customer. This decreased the volume of bulk trash for Republic Services of Palm Beach to collect, and made the use of grapple trucks unnecessary, says David A. Unversaw, general manager.

“We had eight Petersen Lightning Loaders with a 24-cubic-yard capacity,” Unversaw says. “From 2003 to 2008 we used them for vegetation and bulk waste. We’ve transferred seven of them to other Republic divisions. The one we kept is used to service two municipalities, Palm Springs and Royal Palm Beach, that still have unlimited bulk-trash collection.”

Palm Beach County’s population of 1.35 million occupies a land area of 1,974 square miles. Republic Services of Palm Beach collects from about a quarter-million people in 114,000 residential locations, and over 2,000 commercial locations. Unversaw says his customers comprise 30% of all county residents, representing 10% of the county total in the two municipalities and 55% of the residents in the unincorporated area.

“We pick up garbage and bulk as one wastestream, and vegetation as another,” he reports. “Our total waste volume is about 275,000 tons a year. Ten percent of that total is bulk trash, and vegetation is another 4.5%.”

Today, Republic’s Palm Beach fleet consists of 45 McNeilus rear-loaders made by Oshkosh Corp. of Oshkosh, WI, and four front-loaders from Heil Environmental of Chattanooga, TN, a subsidiary of New York-based Dover Corp. “For every two garbage trucks we run, we run a veggie truck,” Unversaw says.

Automated Carry-Cans
The Heil front-loaders are equipped with automated carry-cans from Curotto-Can Inc., of Sonoma, CA. The Curotto-Can has grippers mounted on a metal arm that reaches out from the curb side of the carry-can to grasp and tip trash carts into the can. The arm also can grasp and capture bulky refuse such as discarded armchairs and washing machines. John Curotto, the company’s president, says the Curotto-Can has a capacity of 4.6 cubic yards and its arm can lift objects weighing up to 500 pounds.

Curotto developed the device for use in his own trash-hauling company, Sonoma Garbage Collectors Inc., in Sonoma, CA. Frank Kennedy, sales director for Curotto-Can Inc., says the hauling operation serves 4,500 homes in Sonoma, a city of 11,500 residents in a 2.65-square-mile area.

Sonoma has a three-container system: one for trash, one for greenwaste, and one for single-stream recycling. Customers take three carts out to the street on the same pickup day to be serviced by three separate trucks. “Each truck is set up to handle bulk materials,” Kennedy says. “The system lends itself to the driver being able to get out of the truck and toss whatever bulky material he finds into the Currotto-Can.

“The core idea is that one truck can handle the automated portion with the utmost efficiency, and also collect the bulk materials manually. Because the can is just in front of the driver, he exits the truck, takes two steps to manage the work, and two steps to return to the cab. A side-loader requires five to seven steps to the work zone, a rear-loader 25 feet.

“The carry-can has a very low loading height, 43 inches to 45 inches, depending on how it’s set up, so loading bulky material over the edge is easy. For a heavy item, the arm can help with lifting. The operator can set the edge of a sofa or whatever onto the lip of the Currotto-Can, use the arm to tip it into the can, then hoist it up into the hopper of the front-loader.”

Where Bulk Trash Goes
Picking up bulk trash is just half the battle. Once it’s collected, something has to be done with it. Except perhaps in the most remote rural areas, the days of tossing trash helter-skelter into a town dump are past. Now most bulky waste is either recycled or systematically buried in a landfill.

Many communities collect clean vegetation separately and take it to a shredder to be turned into mulch and fertilizer. In Corpus Christi, TX, 45% of the bulk trash is clean, grindable brush that becomes compost. It is used in city parks, sold to commercial landscape operators for $10 a ton, and given to residents who pay a nominal loading charge.

Corpus Christi is careful not to compost building materials and other “dimensional wood” that may have been coated with lead-based paint, or pressure-treated with a preservative that contains arsenic. “That’s not good if you’re growing vegetables or have kids playing in a yard,” says Lawrence Mikolajczyk, director of solid waste operation.

In addition to collecting loose bulk trash, Laredo, TX, gives residents blue bulk recycling bags in which to place their paper, aluminum, plastic, and tin. “We have our own municipal recycling facility,” says Oscar Medina, manager-solid waste services. “We sell these items mostly to companies in Mexico.”

Tires are a major issue in Laredo, Medina says. Tossed illegally into creek beds, they collect water and become a nursery for mosquitoes carrying the dengue fever and West Nile viruses. “We don’t pick up tires in bulk trash, but we hold tire events when we will take them for free,” he says. “We shred and bury passenger tires in the landfill, but we have to pay a company $6 a tire to take tractor-trailer tires. They recap some, and shred and bury the others.”

In Rochester, NY, all bulk waste goes to a Monroe County transfer station. There appliances and other metal items are diverted to a materials-recycling facility, and brush and woodwaste are chipped for distribution to residents. Anything left over goes to the county landfill in suburban Riga, NY.

Decades ago, many communities built incinerators that “toasted” garbage and trash solely to reduce its volume before burial in a landfill. Today, incineration is part of a larger scheme to create energy and extract useful materials from the trash. The city of Miami sends bulk trash that it doesn’t mulch to Miami-Dade County, which operates transfer stations, landfills, and a plant that burns solid waste to produce energy and reclaim materials.

Operated by Veolia Environmental Services North America, a subsidiary of Paris, France-based Veolia Environnement, the Miami-Dade County Resources Recovery Facility annually treats 1.4 million metric tons of solid waste. It recovers 3,000 metric tons of aluminum and 36,000 metric tons of steel and other metals, and produces almost 80,000 metric tons of compost along with 76 MW of electricity that powers the plant and 45,000 households.

User-Friendly Technology
Simoni in Rochester says the grapple trucks save time while easing the workload. “With a Lightning Loader, the guys can pick up a pile of bulk trash in minutes that would take much longer with a rear-load packer truck, and you have hydraulics rather than manpower doing the heavy lifting. At the end of the day, the operator of a grapple truck isn’t complaining about his back.”

Houston, TX, has used various kinds of grapple trucks since the early 1980s, including self-contained Prentice crane units. The current fleet includes 26 Petersen Rear Steers and 75 tractor-trailer-combination hauling vehicles.

Houston’s grapple trucks “replaced manual operations with rear-load packer trucks and backbreaking work,” says Harry Hayes, solid waste director. “With the Lightning Loaders, you have less human power involved. It’s fully automated.

“We’ve severely limited our risk liability with regard to personal injury and serious accidents. We used to have $3.5 million in annual workers compensation claims. Now it’s in the $500,000 range.” Because Houston’s workers compensation program is self-insured, the reduction in exposure reduces the size of the risk fund the city must maintain.

Hayes says the only ways he can think of to improve on the use of grapple trucks would be “the use of Star Trek technology to levitate the waste into the truck, or vaporize it on the ground.”

This article appeared in a previous issue of MSW Management and has been updated for accuracy.

About the Author

George Leposky

George Leposky is a science and technology writer based in Miami, FL.

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