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Automating recycling credits at curbside.

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. The answer was found in bar-code technology.

Cracking the Code

The first step in implementing the bar-code program was to issue each recycling customer a set of three code-39 based bar-coded stickers to attach to recycling bins for glass, paper and aluminum. The collectors then went into the field with bar-code readers for scanning the stickers on containers. Records from the scanners are uploaded daily to a PC at the recyling operations office, thus eliminating the time-consuming manual steps on paper.

The process of getting the bar-coded stickers to the customers was critical. Customer account numbers and mailing information in the utility billing system were downloaded from the minicomputer to a desktop (HP Vectra) using HP's AdvanceLink software to generate mailing labels for each recycling customer. Each customer's account number and bar code were printed on the mailing label. The bar-code-reader field computers first scanned the customer account number bar code on the label, then the bar code of the recycling sticker that was inserted into the mailing envelope.

Through this process, MIS was able to produce a customer account number/recycling sticker number cross-reference file. Records--with an operator ID and date/time stamp--are consolidated and copied to a diskette every two weeks; then processed on a PC to produce a participation file. This file is then uploaded to the LOGIS utility billing system where the customers are credited on their quarterly bill.

The start of the program was the most labor-intensive with the toughest time-table. The city staff spent one long weekend scanning recycling labels and bar-coded customer account number to create a cross-reference file. In one weekend, the staff consumed massive quantities of pizza while scanning for about 12,600 customers. It was a wild working weekend, but in the end the time and money saved was worth it.

Today, the St. Louis Park city staff can take data from its midrange computer and, in conjunction with its GIS, determine and map how many recycling households are in any given neighborhood and target low participation areas for recycling marketing efforts to further improve participation levels. The staff is shooting for 100 percent.

Computer Benefits

Since its November 1, 1988, start due this system has been running like clockwork. Refuse collection costs are now about 25-30 percent less than surrounding communities. Not only are more St. Louis Park citizens recycling and seeing the payback in their utility bills, but the previous data-entry costs are offset tremendously. Tota cost for implementing the bar-coding application was approximately $30,000. Assuming a conservative four-year life before major enhancements to the applications will be required, the total payback period was only 10 months, when compared to previous data-entry costs. As 1992 begins, the city is not currently anticipating major enhancements.

Collectors are benefiting as well. The average route completion time of nine to 11 hours has been reduced to just six to eight hours. Morale is better than ever, since recycling collectors are paid by the routes they complete and not by the hour.

The city is considering inclusion of bar codes on customer's utility bills. When the bill is returned with a payment it would be scanned to record the customer account number and payment amount.

Further opportunities exist in the solid waste area. Plastics and mixed papers have been added to the recyling program. With the new system, the city potentially can move from recording who is recyling to actually measuring how much refuse customers set out for collection. This approach may eventually develop into a system where customers are charged according to how much waste they actually send off to the landfill--providing even more incentive to recycle.

If this happens, an automated method of recording customer refuse amounts would probably replace the existing method of recording recycling participation. The city certainly has the technology, and this concept plays well with the emerging idea that people and institutions should be financially responsible for the precise amount of waste they produce.

Bar-code technology, combined with the city's midrange computing power and the backup foundation of LOGIS, will allow St. Louis Park to eventually automate all utility billing processes. Citizens now realize the benefits of their recycling efforts, and the results are manifested in the form of credit on their utility bills.

The city seems to have found a way to make sense out of recycling. It has become a way of life in St. Louis Park, not just an emotional matter of personal choice or a passing fad that gains popularity around Earth Day.

With the power of computer technology society in general can become more aware of the environmental impact of the waste stream, how refuse can be recycled and how much it all costs. It is great fun to see technology solving some real problems and contributing to future generations.

CLINT PIRES is MIS coordinator for the City of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He has adapted this article from one which was first published in the November 1991 issue of Government Technology, a monthly magazine published by GMW Communications, Inc. GFOA extends its thanks to Government Technology for its permission to use Mr. Pire's article.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Government Finance Officers Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:recording of refuse collected for application to utility bills
Author:Pires, Clint
Publication:Government Finance Review
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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