“When government employees are looking to improving efficiency, they will frequently take the lowest function and spend time there,” explained Mike Gable, Pittsburgh’s director of Public Works. “Instead, you need to look at your top five functions.”

For Gable, the top function was litter collection. The city of Pittsburgh collected litter Monday through Friday year-round–and spent a lot of staff time doing it. Gable estimated that the city spends 100,000 hours a year collecting trash.

“Driving around the city, I saw empty receptacles, but the city was still having people go around and collect them,” he said.

The new trashcans alert Public Works staff when the trashcan is full and needs to be emptied. (Image: Victor Stanley)

In an interview with 21st Century State & Local, Gable discussed how he improved efficiency and saved the city money through sensor-equipped trash cans.

“Even before the sensors, I just told the six Public Works divisions I oversee that I wanted them to take Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to collect litter and Tuesday and Thursday to do something else for the city–fix potholes, sweep streets, whatever needed to be done,” Gable said.

The schedule change was well received by the public works team. However, Gable’s team wanted to take it even further and approached him with a new product from Victor Stanley, a “smart” trash can equipped with sensors that self-monitor garbage levels and let city workers know when a receptacle needs to be emptied. Along with the report of which trash cans need to be emptied, Victor Stanley’s software also provides Public Works staff with the most efficient route to collect the full cans. With the product in mind, Gable launched a pilot program of 100 receptacles.

The pilot program was a huge success and on May 2, Gable’s team got approval from Pittsburgh’s city council to launch a citywide deployment. By the end of the year, Gable hopes to have 1,000 to 1,200 receptacles deployed. He expects that four out of the six Public Works divisions will be completely outfitted with new receptacles. As with most new technologies, the smart trash cans are more expensive than their regular counterparts. The city council approved spending $274,000 over the next four years for technology support for the new receptacles–this includes the per-sensor cost of $4.90 per month for the monitoring fee and the subscription to the Web-based management software. Additionally, Gable said there is $580,000 available from the capital budget over the next two years to purchase the new cans.

“The litter can monitoring system is a great example of how we can use technology and innovative solutions to deliver services to our residents more efficiently and effectively,” said Mayor William Peduto in a statement. “By monitoring the real-time fill status of receptacles, DPW can more regularly empty cans in our neighborhoods and free up labor hours for other high-priority tasks, thereby improving the level of service provided to residents.”

Conservatively, Gable estimates that the new receptacles will improve efficiency by 30 percent, but he believes that it could go as high as 50 percent. While Public Works could save as much as 50,000 man hours, it doesn’t intend to lay anyone off. Instead, workers will be reallocated to other projects. Supervisors will be able to monitor the receptacles, and workers, via already deployed iPads. Because the garbage trucks are equipped with GPS monitors, supervisors can ensure that only the trash cans that need to be emptied are being emptied and that workers are taking the most efficient route possible.

One concern from the public, and city council members, was that the Public Works team was going to wait until trash cans were completely full before emptying, potentially leading to overflowing trash cans on the weekends. Gable said residents need not worry. The Public Works team will pick a percentage, possibly 70 percent, and empty a receptacle whenever it hits that number. Also, since the team can see where a trash can is located, and knows the city very well, it can make judgment calls. For instance, during the tourist season, the team may choose to empty receptacles at a lower than normal percentage on Fridays in high-traffic areas, to make sure the receptacles have enough capacity to handle the weekend.

In terms of advice for other cities looking to deploy the technology, Gable says to jump in–but make sure to do a pilot program.

“Up to this point it’s been pretty painless,” Gable said. “The pilot program was a good thing for us to go through. We did an inventory during the pilot, which was important. You have to know what you have out there before you can figure out how to maintain it.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs