Route optimization technology delivers big savings for many solid waste operators and successful projects share some common features.

By Jean-François Moneyron

Done well, route optimization is one of the best returns on investment a solid waste operator can make. As any systems engineer knows, the place to find major efficiencies within a system is in the design phase, rather than during operations. The efficient operation of routes is important, of course, and other routing technologies such as route management can help here. However, if the design is not right in the first place, efficiency will always be compromised.

The results from successful route optimization projects demonstrate this point. Even without major changes to the service, typical savings (of resources and costs) for route optimization projects in the solid waste sector are between 5 and 15 percent. For these projects, the basic service remains the same—such as the collections offered to households, the vehicles used to make collections, the location of facilities—but how the work is done is optimized. Where more radical changes are incorporated into projects, such as changing shift patterns or the frequency of collections, then savings of up to 45 percent have been achieved.

With possible savings like these and the cost of running a solid waste collection vehicle estimated between $100,000 to $200,000 per year, it is not surprising that many solid waste and recycling managers are now using route optimization software to increase the efficiency of their business. Delivery approaches vary, with some managers using consultants while others use route optimization software themselves. What is common, however, are the secrets to success and the steps to achieving a successful implementation and results.

Below are six steps we have come to recognize as important to the success of optimization projects in the solid waste and recycling sector.

#1: Use Real-World Data in Your Model

The use of real-world data underpins any route design exercise whether done with paper or software. Without real data, estimates of workload will only ever be guesses. The use of software allows designers to bring much more data to bear, using information from a number of different sources, such as GPS and in-vehicle systems. Data does not need to be perfect or absolutely complete, but the data does need to be from the real world if plans are to be realistic and achievable.

#2: Do Not Underestimate Data Gathering

Having emphasized the importance of data, it is critical not to underestimate the time it can take to gather data. On some projects, it may take up to one-third of project time to gather any data needed. This is one of the reasons that well-intentioned projects generally fail. Data such as property lists, container details, current route, access issues, facility details and collected weights all take time to gather. A plan of what data is to be gathered and how that will happen is one of the most important factors to your project’s success.

#3: Think About Your Scenarios

Optimizing the use of your resource is a key way in which route optimization delivers increased efficiency. Determining who does what work has one of the biggest effects on results. While one of the advantages of using route optimization software is the ability to run different scenarios quickly, analysis and follow up of each option still takes time. Identifying a core set of scenarios and the dependencies of each is the best way to go, but it takes thinking about them ahead of time if you are to avoid rework as different requirements present themselves.

#4: Involve Drivers and Supervisors

One of the misconceptions about route optimization software is that it replaces the need for people. On the contrary, the software is simply a power tool for its users. 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 knowledge, a design risks being unworkable and not followed, with the associated effects on both costs and customer service.

#5: Choose Waste-Specific Software

The optimization of solid waste collection routes is different and more complex than routing problems in other industries, such as deliveries or field service. It involves many more stops, different frequencies of collection, specific safety risks and unusual vehicle constraints. Routing solutions from other industries do not work in waste. But while solid waste route optimization is complex, with the right software and support, it is not impossible. Results from successful projects in cities and municipalities around the world show the savings and service improvements that can be achieved using optimization technologies designed specifically for the unique problems and parameters of solid waste and recycling collection.

#6: Create a Plan to Maintain Your Routes Going Forward

A route optimization exercise takes time and effort. At the end of the project, some people look forward to not having to go through it again for some time. However, things change. New collections are added and others are removed, the amount of material collected alters, as can the make-up of your crews and, over time, inefficiency comes back into your routes. Where data has been kept up-to-date, it is much easier to re-plan routes as they become inefficient. In this way, solid waste operators can consistently maintain a more efficient set of routes. We have found that it is those projects that make a plan to maintain the data that are most likely to follow through, and those operators then review routes more regularly, making smaller, more frequent changes.

Secrets of Success

Route optimization allows waste collection operators to identify and then remove inefficiencies. By building a digital model of their service, solid waste operators are able to compare different options with their current setup in order to identify more efficient and effective operating routes. In addition to cost savings, this can also mean balanced workloads and happier drivers, better customer service as crews are less likely to run short of capacity, and a safer operating environment since routes have been designed to properly account for safety issues.

The secrets of success for route optimization in solid waste collection involve understanding the importance of each step in the process and the specific features of operating a waste collection service. Where projects succeed, the result should be major efficiency gains and service improvements. Where projects get stuck, it is a massive missed opportunity.

JF 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 and can be reached at (404) 751-4498 or via e-mail at