To get and keep more diverse, talented people in the driver’s seat, capital investment in dependable technology is the waste industry’s best recourse.
By Tom Malone

The big message from COVID-19 is this: The time to automate the complexity, time and tedium out of trash collection was yesterday. It was hard enough to find people to collect trash. Then COVID-19 exacerbated a calamitous driver shortage for municipal and private haulers. COVID-19 changed our buying habits. During stay-at-home orders, people did more online ordering and disposed of more shipping waste. This increased municipal solid waste (MSW) by about 20 percent—a big deal for haulers who are under pressure to attract and retain drivers.

The driver shortage left many waste haulers straining to adapt. They struggled to complete routes. Carts went unattended at the curb. Driver absences due to illness and isolations (quarantine) resulted in service delays, irritated customers and increased demand on already overburdened employees. The shortage placed haulers between the proverbial rock and a hard place, causing them to breach contracts and face fines for non-performance.

The Problem is Getting Worse
The average age of a truck driver today is 49. Younger workers are not filling seats as quickly as they are being vacated. Middle-aged white males comprise the largest demographic in trucking, according to the Census Bureau. Efforts are underway to recruit underrepresented women and minorities into the profession to help meet demand. However, with more driving options from Amazon, Walmart, Instacart and many others, competition for people who are willing to drive for a living has become so intense that some haulers are touting the kind of sign-on bonuses previously reserved for investment bankers.

Automation or Else
Visionary haulers and municipalities became more automated years ago. They deployed in-cab computers, software-based route-design tools, camera equipment and smart-sensors on their trucks. In addition to lower labor costs, these additions increased revenue and improved service.

With astounding speed, municipalities have mustered requests for proposals (RFPs) for digital tools out the door. Private haulers are accelerating plans to go paperless. Forced for the first time into a return-on-investment (ROI) analysis, service providers are discovering efficiencies and huge financial rewards that led visionary municipalities and private haulers to automate years ago.

COVID-19 led haulers to an awakening: While mitigating driver shortages, automation pays for itself. Here are the top 10 reasons why demand for municipalities and private haulers are stepping up their game with automation:

  1. Automation pays for itself in less than 12 months. It allows haulers to consolidate stops, resulting in fewer route hours and reduced vehicle and driver expenses. Those savings flow to the bottom line.
  2. It leads to better service, 100 percent verification of service and fewer missed stops. If a driver skips a stop because the container was blocked or not out, global positioning (GPS) and photo or video can prove that the driver made a valid attempt to serve.
  3. It mitigates a profound driver shortage. Route optimization means haulers need fewer trucks and drivers.
  4. It improves safety for the driver and for the community. Automation keeps the driver’s focus where it should be, and route optimization reduces the time your fleet spends on the road overall.
  5. Automation plugs a huge revenue leak. In-cab computers allow drivers to record billable “extras,” and photo and video evidence of skips reduces expensive “go-backs” when containers are not out on time.
  6. It eliminates paper. Automation sends routes and service orders to on-board computers so that the driver’s day is organized before it begins.
  7. It helps a hauler maintain the same service footprint with fewer trucks. Optimized routes take less time, translating to more pickups per hour, meaning trucks and drivers can do more work in the same number of hours. Additionally, haulers can increase roll-off pulls per hour, leading to an increase in top-line revenue.
  8. It makes it easier for new drivers to faithfully run routes error-free. In-cab computers with turn-by-turn directions allow new hires and pinch-hitters to run routes successfully the first time.
  9. It leads to an 80 percent reduction in calls to customer service. Automation also provides real-time information to customer service, reducing time spent per call and allowing for reduced staffing.
  10. Automation leads to higher recycling diversion rates. By allowing haulers to capture extra trash setouts and appropriately bill the customer, automation encourages proper sorting of materials and increases recycling.

The significant savings that automation produces can fund recruitment efforts and pay drivers higher wages. This can make a hauler the “employer of choice” for people who are willing to drive for a living.

Recruit Hard-to-Reach Younger Drivers and Change Perceptions
It is easier to recruit a younger, digital-native driver with a truck that is equipped with the kind of technology that they already use in daily life. The days of paper-based routes and reliance upon institutional memory to get things right are coming to an end.
Instead, drivers rely on turn-by-turn directions, instant messages and access to information on the go. These tools reduce friction and make the job more satisfying.

Meet Health and Safety Concerns Head-On
Integrated digital solutions improve safety in what has been a comparatively dangerous profession. Onboard computers equipped with photo and video functionality:

  • Easily and automatically document unsafe conditions at a customer site,
  • Automatically film accidents, safety issues, panic events and interactions with police and the public,
  • Track metrics in real time, including G-force events and speeding events,
  • Help with root-cause analysis and incident prevention,
  • Get 360-degree views around the truck to prevent accidents,
  • Help supervisors provide specific coaching based on telematic information such as hard braking or rapid acceleration,
  • Inspect and document vehicle faults before and after a shift.

Meet Growing Collection Needs the Easy Way
Many haulers need drivers to serve new recycling and organics collection programs aimed at diverting waste from landfills and reducing methane emissions. In 2021 and beyond, California drivers will haul organic materials to an estimated 90 new facilities (CalRecycle’s early estimate in 2017)1, some of which already have been built, to comply with Senate Bill 1383 that requires jurisdictions to provide organics collection programs and measure their outcomes. Three years ago, we suggested that the right technology helps organizations address the driver shortage.2 It is still true. To get and keep more diverse, talented people in the driver’s seat, capital investment in dependable technology is the waste industry’s best recourse.

Tom Malone is the CEO of Routeware Global. To learn more about smart fleet management and automation, contact Routeware Global at [email protected] or visit