Robot Trash Truck Picks Up Praise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surrounded by well-dressed local dignitaries near a decorated table lined with catered fruit and pastries, Glendale Councilwoman Ginger Bremberg on Tuesday raised her hands in tribute and stared proudly at the sleek machine before her.

Glendale's new automated garbage truck was about to be introduced to the public.

"It's air-conditioned, has an AM-FM radio . . . and you never have to get out of the cab," Bremberg said, as city officials nodded in appreciation. "I've driven it. I really think it's a neat operation."

The city plans to purchase 17 of the automated refuse trucks over the next three years to replace Glendale's 24 manually operated vehicles, Bremberg and other city administrators announced at a City Hall press conference Tuesday.

The trucks use a hydraulic arm to lift and dump specially designed 100-gallon trash barrels, which are provided by the city. The vehicles can be operated by a single worker who usually does not have to leave the cab. Manually operated trucks generally require at least two workers--a driver and a helper.

The new trucks are expected to help curtail injuries to workers, make trash collection more efficient and encourage recycling, officials said.

The automated trucks are being used in about a dozen California cities, including Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Claremont and Ontario. Long Beach will begin the service within a year and Burbank is researching the trucks, said representatives of those cities who visited Glendale Tuesday to see the new vehicle.

Two of the three trucks already purchased by the city began routes serving 5,500 Glendale residences Monday. The city's remaining 24,000 residences will be added over the next two years, said Kerry Morford, the city's assistant director of public works.

The switch to automated refuse trucks coincides with the start of voluntary separation of grass, leaves and other yard wastes. Those wastes are placed in traditional trash cans for pickup by trucks that also collect glass, can and paper recyclables under a program begun in 1988.

Yard clippings will be composted by special machinery at the Scholl Canyon Landfill, then used in place of dirt to cover layers of garbage to extend the life of the city's only dump, said Brian Austin, a sanitation supervisor.

The automated service, Austin said, may help Glendale meet state-mandated recycling goals, which require municipalities to reduce their landfill deposits 25% by 1995 and 50% by 2000. Since each household receives just one 100-gallon barrel for general refuse, residents will be encouraged to limit volume by separating recyclables. Extra refuse barrels will be available but must be rented.

Automated collection also is expected to save money, said Bob Weger, the city's senior sanitation supervisor. Hydraulic vehicles cost about $112,000 each--about $20,000 more than a manually operated truck. Special containers equipped with wheels for households throughout the city will cost about $2.25 million. But the city may save up to $600,000 a year by providing faster service with fewer trucks and fewer workers, he said.

While a manually operated truck can pick up about 10 tons of trash a day, an automated truck can collect 25 tons, which reduces the number of routes needed, Weger said. And because an automated truck requires only a driver, 14 operator positions will be eliminated.

The personnel reductions will not involve laying off permanent employees, Weger said, because the city stopped hiring about a year ago and has filled the positions with temporary workers.

"Automated collection also eliminates the hazard of lifting a heavy container, throwing it in the bin and compacting it," Morford said. "Several workers have been injured when toxic chemicals splashed on them or containers of solvent or acid exploded during compacting. This will eliminate the driver from having to get in and out of the truck to dump the trash."

But there may be drawbacks, officials warned. If a barrel doesn't have three feet of clearance around it, a driver may have to get out of the truck and adjust it so the hydraulic arm can pick it up. Truck operators will have to negotiate between parked cars. And because they do not leave the cab, they will not know when a homeowner has thrown away toxic or recyclable wastes with regular household trash, Austin said.

But those potential obstacles were not on the minds of city officials and visitors Tuesday.

"This is giving birth to this wonderful program," said Mayor Larry Zarian, just before christening the truck with an empty breakaway champagne bottle.

Bill Osborne, a city maintenance worker sitting alone in the truck's cab, then grabbed a plastic trash barrel with the hydraulic arm and emptied it into a trash bin of the vehicle. "It's just like playing the piano," Osborne said.

Above his head, a small video screen and an electronic sensor showed him what was directly behind the truck.

"There are people who are going to be intimidated," Zarian told the crowd as he pointed to a 100-gallon barrel. "They are not going to like this huge thing sitting in front of their homes. But this first phase is going to be a piece of cake."

Sort of. Less than an hour later, 41-year-old Ruben Jimenez, a garbage truck operator for the last 15 years, drove an automated truck along the curb of Raymond Drive, in one of five areas that will receive automated service this year.

Occasionally, Jimenez had to leave the cab to straighten a barrel or clear bags or other trash from around it before he could pick it up with the hydraulic arm. He already was running late on his route, he said, because a computer chip in the truck's arm malfunctioned for a short time on Monday, forcing him to make an early trip to the landfill Tuesday morning.

As Jimenez continued his route, a 75-year-old resident watched and grumbled her dissatisfaction with the automated service.

"That monstrosity?" said the woman, who asked not to be identified as she pointed to a nearby barrel. "It's too heavy. I'm too old to have to handle a big thing like that. I don't like it, period."

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