Run a number of different scenarios to project a range of possible staffing needs based on your operations and assumptions. Given the lack of comparable data sets, survey results represent a good first estimate at gauging staffing levels until more detailed research is accomplished.
By David Nightingale, Joel Nightingale and Larry Sweetser

At household hazardous wastes (HHW) collection facilities, one basic parameter that has not been well characterized is the level of staffing required to safely and efficiently operate. There are many variables, such as differing operating practices and customer demand, that can influence staffing levels at a specific collection facility. Without any normalized benchmarks, it can be difficult to plan for staff hiring, create estimated operating budgets or compare operating efficiencies between facilities.

HHW Staffing Levels: Lack of Benchmarks and Survey Approach
To fill this knowledge gap, Special Waste Associates (SWA) developed and distributed a staffing survey across the U.S. in the late spring 2019. The survey focus was on staffing levels at permanent collection facilities as opposed to occasional collection events. Collection events serving hundreds or thousands of customers per day are typically focused on fast processing of customers in the shortest time possible. Therefore, staffing levels, methods and efficiencies of collection events often are not closely related to staffing approaches and methods typical at year-round collection facilities. The survey instrument was distributed broadly by soliciting permanent facility operator participation primarily through the national HHW list serve (hosted by the Washington State Department of Ecology), as well as Minnesota, and California HHW distribution lists. The survey included questions to characterize key operating practices that were anticipated to affect staffing levels.

Overall Response and Geographic Distribution
47 local jurisdictions from 12 states responded to the survey with the largest representations from Minnesota, California and Washington. The distribution of survey responses by state is shown in geographically on Figure 1. There are hundreds of permanent HHW collection facilities in the U.S., but there is no official tally of total facilities in North America. California alone reportedly has 122 permanent HHW collection facilities.1 Because some of the 47 programs in the survey have multiple collection facilities, the 47 responses represent data from 52 individual HHW collection facilities.

Figure 1: Geographic distribution of survey respondents.

Survey Biases
HHW collection programs in CA, MN, WA and Florida account for 34 of the 47 responses, about 72 percent of the total. These four states coincidentally have some of the highest numbers of permanent collection facilities in the U.S. Consequently, the distribution of responses might be generally representative if the data were weighted by the number of permanent HHW collection facilities per state. However, without a state-by-state comprehensive inventory of such facilities geographic weighting could not be performed. The most common products that become HHW are nationally distributed and local programs tend to collect similar types of traditional HHW. In that sense, a geographic bias might not exist or be significant.

Examination of staffing levels based on service area population density found no clear patterns. Households served per staff-day did not appear to be correlated with the population density of the program service area.

Survey Methodology and Results
The survey results found a wide variety of operating modes, such as number of operating days per week or month. However, on days when waste is accepted there was an average of 6.7 hours open to the public with over half of all programs open to the public from between six and eight hours per day. Given this relatively homogenous average hours per day factor, a few assumptions were used to normalize the staffing data between programs with different operating modes. The number of hours the facility was open to the public and the number of customers served during those hours were normalized to a staffing level statistic by dividing the number of households served by number of staff regardless of how many hours of operation the facility was open. This provided a normalized value for households served per staff per day (households per staff-day).
In addition, questions were asked to account for more detailed operating practices that can affect the overall labor requirement. For instance, seven of the 47 permanent collection programs indicated that they do not take latex paints, which in most HHW collection facilities constitutes a large fraction of the total HHW managed. Notably, all of the programs that indicated that they do not accept latex paints are in states that have not yet implemented PaintCare’s paint product stewardship programs.2 The seven programs that do not accept latex paint were also analyzed as a separate statistical sub-group.

The survey asked about the breadth of HHW accepted. Some programs accept only the traditional suite of HHW, including unwanted cleaners, fuels, paints, liquid automotive wastes, pesticides, etc. Non-traditional HHW wastes can require a significant proportion of staff time and often include management of fluorescent tubes, batteries requiring taping before shipment, electronic wastes, appliances, sharps/medical wastes and others. For survey respondents that accepted non-traditional HHW waste, they were asked to estimate the percentage of time devoted to those activities. This information allowed an adjustment to the value of households served per staff-day for the management of only the traditional HHW waste types. With that normalizing adjustment there was still a very wide distribution of staffing levels, ranging from 2.2 to 66.7 households served per staff-day. The average for all 52 facility surveys was 21.0 and the median was 19.6 households per staff-day.

Figure 2: Households served per staff-day, adjusted for accepting only traditional HHW.

The adjusted results of the HHW collection facility staff survey are shown in Figure 2. The higher number of households served per staff-day for programs accepting all architectural paints, oil-based and latex, is likely due to the relatively little time needed for managing the relatively large proportion of innocuous latex paint. Other HHW types typically require more attention and time to safely sort, analyze and package.
The average proportion of staff time devoted to non-traditional HHW wastes that were managed by at least two programs are shown in Figure 3. Some programs reported a unique waste type that required significant time, such as polystyrene. Those singularly reported waste types are not reflected in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Proportion of staff time managing non-traditional HHW.

Example Staffing Projection for a New HHW Collection Facility
It is very common for local HHW programs to progress from collection events, one or a few times per year, to a permanent collection program for year-round availability It is not unusual to see a doubling of participation in the first full year of a permanent facility operation compared to the prior collection event year. Let’s suppose that last year your HHW collection event(s) served 1,000 customers and each customer represented one household. Therefore, you project serving 2,000 customers or households in the first 12 months of your new permanent HHW collection facility. Finally, you plan to be open one day per week except for Christmas and Thanksgiving weeks, open 50 days per year. Your daily households served estimate, based on your annual household demand and open days per year, would be:


From Figure 2, the median HHW facility accepting the traditional suite of HHW, including all types of architectural paints, is 20 households per staff-day. Further, assume that in addition to collecting the traditional HHW types, you also plan to accept e-waste and batteries that require taping or other protection before shipment. To adjust the households/staff-day value for acceptance of these additional HHWs, you can look to Figure 3 and calculate a reduced number of households served per staff-day shown below:


From the estimated households per staff-day and 40 households you project to be served per day you can estimate your likely staff needs as follows:


This indicates that three staff may be reasonable to operate your new HHW collection facility. Considering that most year-round HHW collection programs have significant seasonal swings in customer use, three staff will probably be fully used.

Planning Ahead for Household Participation Growth
As time goes on, permanent facilities tend to attract more customers. For long-term planning purposes 10 to 15 percent household participation per year is reasonable for a highly-effective HHW collection program. A later HHW Corner article will discuss performance metrics for HHW collection programs.

With the information discussed above you can run a number of different scenarios to project a range of possible staffing needs based on your operations and assumptions. Given the lack of comparable data sets, these survey results represent a good first estimate at gauging staffing levels until more detailed research is accomplished. This survey was conducted prior to the emergence of COVID-19, so it is unclear whether that pandemic would have any affect on the results shown here. Some HHW collection operations have been deemed essential services and others not so designated. Social distancing and worker/public safety precautions may or may not significantly impact staffing levels going forward. | WA

Next month’s HHW Corner column will answer the question, “Where did the concept of HHW come from?”

David Nightingale is the Principal at Special Waste Associates in Olympia, WA. He can be reached at (360) 491-2190 or e-mail at [email protected]
Joel Nightingale is an Engineering Intern at Special Waste Associates in Chicago, IL. He can be reached at (360) 481-1587 or e-mail at [email protected]
Larry Sweetser is President of Sweetser Associates, Inc. in Richmond, CA. He can be reached at (510) 703-0898 or e-mail [email protected].
For more information, call (360) 491-2190 or e-mail [email protected].

1. Based on an unpublished informal tally by Sweetser Associates, Inc.
2. Five of the seven surveyed facilities that do not accept latex paints are in Washington State, which passed paint product stewardship legislation in 2019. Most of the programs in Washington State had accepted latex paint in previous years, but have excluded latex paints more recently to save operating costs. It will be interesting to see if they change their operating practices when PaintCare starts operating in Washington.