Route optimization can deliver big savings for solid waste operators, but don’t be misled by some of the myths.

Jean-François Moneyron

Like many technologies, solid waste route optimization comes with its own myths. Perhaps in part because of the use of generic routing technologies and approaches by some municipalities or private haulers, a number of misconceptions about route optimization have come about in the industry.

The reason this is a problem is that going into a route optimization project with a misunderstanding of what is actually involved is one of the most common causes of difficulties or failure. Given the size of prize that route optimization can deliver, which typically starts around 15 percent of operating costs, it is a massive missed opportunity when projects get stuck.

Below are five common myths we come across when people talk about optimization, along with the reality from our experience with our long list of clients.

Myth #1: It’s Too Complicated

There’s actually some truth in this myth about optimization. With the traditional maps and pens approach, solid waste route optimization is too complicated to be undertaken rigorously. While an experienced team with a determined approach can often get a pretty good answer when asked to improve the efficiency of a set of existing routes, they will always limit the scope of the exercise to what can be achieved manually. They will never be able to accurately assess the multiple scenarios that are required to make more transformational changes.

The easiest way to debunk the myth that route optimization is too complicated to undertake is to actually look at what has been achieved. The results from numerous successful optimization projects in the U.S. and Europe has demonstrated that, even without major changes to the service, typical savings (of resources and costs) for route optimization projects in the solid waste sector start around 15 percent. Where more radical changes are incorporated into projects, such as automation, changing shift patterns or frequency of collections, then savings of up to 45 percent have been achieved.

Myth #2: It’s Not Complicated

Ask anyone who has actually done it and they will tell you that designing new routes for solid waste collection is a very difficult problem. We work with customers who have hundreds of trucks servicing hundreds of thousands of residents so scale alone is one issue. But add to that the complexity that comes from visiting on a repeating cycle, in a local area, and the need to consider passing along either side of the street, and variations arising from different weights, materials, property types, vehicles and productivity, and you have an extremely complex route optimization problem to solve.

Route optimization software should be as easy as possible to use and this is critical if users are to be able to actually get results from their projects. However, given the underlying complexity that has to be dealt with, we never leave our customers with the impression that route optimization is not complicated. Think about the words of Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

Myth #3: Computers Take the Place of People

One of the misconceptions about route optimization solutions is that they replace the need for people. In reality, the software is a power tool for waste professionals rather than something to supplant them. Route optimization software lets people who understand waste collection design better routes faster, but it doesn’t seek to replace the knowledge of the people who operate the service. Their knowledge is vital in understanding the parameters in which the design must operate and the operational issues associated with different types of collection. Without building in this experience and know-how, a design risks being unworkable and not followed, with the associated effects on both costs and customer service.

Myth 4: There’s a Magic Button

We wish there was! When people go into a route optimization project, they do so because they have a desire to make a change. Given the significant potential savings I have already mentioned, naturally people want to make that change as quickly as possible. But the reality is that there is no magic button.

The use of real-world data underpins any successful route design exercise whether done with paper or software. Although data doesn’t need to be perfect or absolutely complete, having the time and resource to gather the right data is a prerequisite to a successful optimization project. While seeing the software redesign routes can seem like magic, it actually relies on a foundation of good data. Collecting data isn’t always easy, but it is always worthwhile. “I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy—I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it” (Art Williams).

Myth 5: Once it’s Done, it’s Done

This one is probably less a myth and more something that people would just like to be true. As I’ve explained before, a route optimization exercise takes time and effort. At the end of the project, the people involved look forward to not having to go through it again for some considerable time. But things change. New collections are added and others are removed, the amount of material collected alters, as can the productivity of your drivers and, over time, inefficiency comes back into your routes.

Just as route optimization software is used to create efficiency, it can also be used to maintain efficiency. As with so much in life, little and often is a more sustainable route to success, and by keeping data and routes up-to-date, it is much easier to make corrections as routes start to become inefficient. In this way, solid waste operators can continuously maintain a more effective set of routes by making smaller, more frequent changes, and consistently keep on top of their costs.

Tackle the Problem

In summary then, while we never say to people that route optimization is easy, we also explain that it shouldn’t be too hard either. To achieve results, operators need to recognize that they are tackling a complex problem and go into it understanding what is required for success. With the right understanding and expectations, as well as solid waste specific software, a route optimization project remains one of the best investments a solid waste operator can make.

Jean-François Moneyron is Vice President of EasyRoute (Atlanta, GA), a leading route optimization software provider for the solid waste and recycling collection industry. He manages all of EasyRoute’s customers and partners in North America. Jean-François can be reached at (404) 751-4498 or via e-mail at [email protected].