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Taking the Heave-Ho Out of Trash Pickup : Waste: Torrance’s experiment with automated garbage collection draws positive reviews. Officials hope that a citywide program would save money and reduce worker injuries.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a decade, Louie Azevedo “threw trash” on the streets of Torrance. He heaved cans and dumped their dank contents into a city garbage truck. It was bruising, brutal work. Once a back injury forced him off the job for six weeks. Another time a handle broke, setting the can down hard and breaking his toe.

But Azevedo’s trash-throwing days may soon be done. Last week, he glided along a Torrance street in the cab of a newfangled yellow truck. A claw shot abruptly from the truck’s side, wrapped itself around a waiting can, squeezed slightly, then lifted fast.

The can sailed into the air and tilted. Garbage plopped neatly inside the truck. The claw returned the can to the curb. Azevedo scarcely broke a sweat.

Each weekday since mid-June, in neighborhoods scattered across Torrance, city trash haulers like Azevedo have been testing automated garbage trucks with hydraulic claws that do the back-breaking work they once performed.

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“The first thing you need is a lot of practice. . . . Other guys, they’re faster,” Azevedo admits. But he and other employees learning to operate the trucks say they welcome the new technology as a way to avoid on-the-job injuries.

The city hopes an automated collection system will save money and free staff and equipment for a planned recycling program. Workers’ compensation costs are expected to decrease. No layoffs are planned. If successful, the system could be expanded to serve most of the 30,000 homes in Torrance.

Although the reaction among residents of 5,568 homes involved in the automation project has been mostly positive, not everyone has been won over yet. One man talked nostalgically of his now-obsolete plastic garbage bags. Another declared the entire system of mandatory black trash bins “communistic.”

All over the Torrance pilot area, the neighbors are talking trash.

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“It’s neat. It’s clean. I think it would work real good if they did it everywhere,” Joe Moreno said.

“I wish I could say positive things, but the lid is too heavy. If you flop it back over, it’ll turn over on you,” Gerri Yarborough said. She has to grasp the lid with one hand while dumping garbage in the can with the other. Her advice to City Hall: Consider a lid that detaches.

Automation may be streamlining the trash haulers’ job, but it means slightly more work for homeowners, who set out the garbage once a week. Residents were required to replace their own bags and cans with city-supplied containers that fit snugly into the claw’s grip. They must follow precise rules, such as setting the containers at least three feet from the closest tree or 10 to 15 feet from the nearest parked car.

On garbage days, the “streetscape” takes on a certain sameness: Each squat, tan stucco house has a tall black can in front of it--a sensible scuff-resistant black that some residents find pleasantly uniform and others long to decorate.

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“I was thinking of putting some nice graffiti on it, just for the heck of it,” Torrance resident Horst Neu mused. “They don’t look too pretty.”

City officials ask that residents leave the containers unadorned for now.

The city plans to survey residents of the pilot areas after 90 days. The City Council will then decide whether to expand automation citywide.

But initial figures show the project is already saving the city as much as $10 on every ton of trash.

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“We’re picking up more homes, more tonnage than before . . . and we’re doing it with fewer people, less equipment,” said Torrance Sanitation Services Supervisor Robert H. Brewer.

Torrance is the only South Bay city still running its own residential garbage pickup system. Most other area cities contract with BFI Waste Systems Inc. or Western Waste Industries, which report no immediate plans to start automated South Bay service.

Automated curbside pickup is standard in some other Southland cities. Beverly Hills began it a decade ago. Pasadena has automated 65% of its residential pickups. And in the city of Los Angeles, 103,750 homes are now served by automated trucks.

The biggest boosters may be the employees themselves, who are tired of on-the-job injuries and back-breaking work.

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“We’ve got numerous horror stories. In the past year, I think we trained three or four people for other jobs, they hurt themselves so much,” said Patrick Astredo, vice president of Torrance Municipal Employees, AFSCME Local 1117, the union representing refuse workers.

One morning last week, just a few blocks away from Azevedo’s claw-equipped truck, refuse operator Lonnie D. Brown was throwing trash the old-fashioned way.

His arm muscles bulged. His forehead was dotted with beads of sweat.

Automation will mean “less wear and tear on your body,” Brown said. “I think it’s a real good idea.”

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