Trash Talk: Huntsville Sanitation Division talks growth and efficiency

single-meta-cal June 19, 2017

The storm seemed to touch every corner of the city, surprising in its destruction. It only added to the challenges for a department that has seen those corners expand outward with increasing regularity.

The City of Huntsville’s Public Works Department has endured one of the busiest months that it has ever faced. According to Redonald Scott, sanitation manager for the City, “the volume tripled.”

The powerful storm of May 20 didn’t bring the ferocity of a tornado, but its winds were no less damaging to thousands of trees. And rather than being more isolated, the storm affected all parts of Huntsville.

They were followed by storms a week later which, heaped on the typical trash and debris loads from spring cleaning, forced the department into overtime. It used its imagination to conquer the problem while asking the public for patience.

My ride along with Huntsville Sanitation’s David Sloan

Drivers who typically drove sanitation trucks on their typical Monday-through-Thursday 10-hours shifts were requested to work overtime, driving “knuckle-boom” trucks and dump trucks on Fridays and Saturdays to clear debris. But there were only a certain number of trucks and barely more than two dozen available drivers.

“The volume kept coming in waves,” said Scott. “We’d clear a street and the next week there would be even more yard debris to haul away. For storms like these, it can take residents weeks to get to all of the downed trees and limbs on their property.”

Making Pickup Efficient 

The eternal challenge is one of efficiency, with an eye on the bottom line. The population continues to grow, homes pop up like dandelions in new neighborhoods and the boundaries of the city keep stretching. Re-drawing route maps is a regular occurrence.

“We have a great crew in public works,” Mayor Tommy Battle says. “They examine the way they do things on a day-to-day basis and continually review routes and pickup methodologies. It’s a team that is focused on improving and becoming more efficient.” 

Scott, who oversees this branch of the Department of Public Works under director Chris McNeese, is a veteran of the department. He started in the department riding along on the back of a truck, hoisting cans.

That went away in the 1990s with modernization and the purchase of trucks with claw arms. Though the new trucks are a $275,000 investment, it has enabled the department’s manpower to shrink through attrition. The driver does the whole job, navigating the route and using a joystick to maneuver the claw arm to retrieve cans and dump them in the truck.

A quick glimpse at the massive route maps on Scott’s wall is a reminder of the breadth of this city, one of the largest in the U.S. by land mass. A long ride in the passenger seat of a sanitation truck is an education about neighborhoods and roads that even a resident of two decades had no idea existed.

A distant Limestone County home inside the city limits might have a neighbor across the road who uses Madison County garbage pickup or a neighbor 100 yards away who uses a contracted service through Morgan County.

“We look at areas of growth and we tweak what we do,” Scott says. “We look at areas and go, let’s move this truck to there. We shift people around until we can’t shift anymore.”

Planned and expected growth can be managed by adjustments smoothly enough. As long as Mother Nature will just mind her own business.

Trash Facts

The Department of Public Works is multi-faceted, providing maintenance on roads and other infrastructure and also sanitation service. The latter has separate roles as well. There is the garbage collection for both business and residential – kitchen and household waste, etc. — and the collection of yard debris and trash.

Weekly recycling pickup of paper, plastic, cans and other recyclables (except glass) is contracted to Republic Services, managed by the Solid Waste Disposal Authority.

The fee for sanitation service is $16.50 per month and customers are billed through Huntsville Utilities, a rate comparable to most cities in our area.

To help with the efficiency of Huntsville’s sanitation operation, the Public Works Department has some tips for Huntsville residents:

  • All garbage cans should be on the curb by 7 a.m. and the handles should be away from the street.
  • Leave a five-foot space between cans, if you use multiple ones, or between the can and other obstacles such as mailboxes, parked cars, other trash, trees and plants.
  • Don’t overflow the can, and be sure your waste is “sacked” and not loose in the can.
  • Use the garbage cans only for household waste.
  • Use recycling bins for paper and cans.
  • Trash pickup by the knuckle-boom truck is for yard debris and large items. Heavy, uncrushable items like building materials can do severe, expensive damage to the compactor in the truck.

Where it Goes

Huntsville disposes of much of its trash at the state-of-the-art Solid Waste Disposal Authority site at the southernmost point of Triana Blvd. The facility can process up to 690 tons of waste per day, incinerating the material into ash in its 1,800-degree furnace, and piping the steam that is produced directly to Redstone Arsenal, generating power for its heating and air conditioning. Other trash is delivered to the Authority’s landfill site off Johnson Road.