Trash Talk

One early morning, you’re awakened by a squall outside. A glance out the window shows the garbage man leaping from the back of the truck, while it’s still rolling. With one swift motion, he dislodges the trash from the can, then flips the empty container back in the yard. The truck fades into the lingering morning fog, still heard, but not seen.

That’s the scene most people are used to seeing. But technology is changing everything — even in the trash business.

Today, trash pickup is still an early-morning affair, but how it finds its way inside the truck is different, at least for the folks at Southland Waste Services.

Southland provided two blue, 96-gallon trashcans, one for trash and the other for recycling, which each hold about three times the average trashcan. Their size allows for more recycling, but at the cost of creating curbside barriers. Most people interviewed liked the idea of matching cans lining the street, but there were problems with people leaving them there.

“They’re a good concept, but everyone needs to get on the same page,” Arlington resident Judy Martinez said. “After they pick up, you should bring them back to your house. My neighbors leave them out.”

“A lot of people drag them back and forth, but we just leave them out by the road. It’s convenient,” Jake Ford, one of Martinez’s neighbors, said.

Jacksonville city ordinances say garbage and recyclables may be put curbside no sooner than 5 p.m. the day before pickup, and must be taken from the curb no later than 6 a.m. the following day. Violators will be warned, and repeat offenders can expect a ticket, said Debbie Delgado, a public communications officer for the mayor’s office.

“There have been some calls to 630-CITY [2489],” Delgado said about cans being left curbside. “But they have slowed down.”

The trucks’ mechanical arms can pick up only the designated cans, so other items will stay on the curb a bit longer. Drivers are supposed leave the vehicle to tag items for pickup the next day, but they don’t always do it.

“Drivers don’t like to get out of their trucks to tag stuff, so they pass up 90 percent of it,” Arlington landlord Steve Hearing said. “I have had to call them more than a few times.”

Hearing has been renting homes for more than 15 years. He has nearly 10 properties being serviced by Southland’s automated system. He said it’s been quite a pain getting Southland to pick up bulky items from his properties, but he likes the idea of matching cans lining the street.

In order for the automated trucks to be effective, the containers must be placed with the unhinged side facing the road — a lesson Arlington resident Lee Barden learned the hard way.

“The first time I set it out backwards, and they crushed it,” Barden said.

If a container is damaged, a resident can call for a new one. The hauler will determine if the damage was due to misuse, which will result in a replacement charge. Depending on the damage, it could cost as much as $65, which is the price for a new receptacle. Residents can call 630-2489 for inquiries about the containers, whether to make a complaint, replace a can or order a new one.

Lee-Catherine Hicks, municipal marketing manager with Southland, said each automated truck requires one fewer person, meaning lower labor costs, and should result in a cheaper monthly price per house. Nobody was fired when the automated system was implemented, but some employees were relocated, Hicks said. Despite complaints about the large cans, Hicks says it’s for the better.

“It’s safer, cleaner and will save the city money,” she said.

Southland added automated trucks in Arlington, Northside and Southside after beginning the service in Jacksonville Beach in 2007. Though Hicks said the automated trucks will save money, Jacksonville Beach residents’ monthly cost has stayed at $16.31 per house.

It’s safer for garbage collectors, who no longer have to dangle from the back of trucks, and it might be cleaner, but it hasn’t saved money, yet.

“I don’t even want to guess why it has stayed the same,” Jacksonville Beach Budget Officer Patricia Roberts said.

Hicks said residents’ cost has remained the same despite the rising cost of living and inflation because of the savings created by the automated trucks. Hicks said she believes the savings will be realized over time.

There are three companies contracted to handle Jacksonville’s public waste: Southland, Waste Pro and Advanced Disposal. The other two companies had no plans for automated trucks, but a recent proposal by Councilmember Richard Clark could force this innovation.

If accepted, the law would allow other companies to compete for Waste Pro’s contract, which Clark said would give taxpayers the best deal. The bill would also force the winner to implement an automated system, but only for recycling, according to The Florida Times-Union.

Some of the residents interviewed were supportive of Southland’s system since it provided containers at no cost. With the old garbage trucks, residents had to purchase their own cans.

“You can’t complain about anything that’s free,” Arlington resident Steve Poteat said.

The two blue receptacles were given to more than 71,000 residents, costing Southland $14 million, Hicks said. An additional $7 million bought 28 compatible trucks, she said.

Southland swapped the last of its old trucks in June 2012 to implement the automated system, which now covers about a third of Jacksonville homes.

For its upfront costs, the city awarded Southland a contract extension from 2016 to 2021. Though the cans’ bulky size has inclined some residents to make them stationary blobs, it has also increased the amount of recycling.

In the first six months of Southland’s single-stream recycling, productivity has doubled, Hicks said. Single-stream recycling means residents can place all recyclable items in the same bin.

“There is plenty of room for recycling,” Arlington resident Kimberly Olmeda said.