In the Spotlight

The City of Charlotte, NC Solid Waste Services Department: Reorganizing for Success

Believing there wasa better way of doing business and a potentially better, more efficientorganizational structure of the department, the City of Charlotte, NC Solid Waste Services Department implemented a new model that provides increased efficiency within the city and has allowed for reduced service costs while strengthening customer service.

Named for Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III of England in 1768, the city of Charlotte, NC was incorporated as a municipality and quickly expanded as a major processing and distribution hub in the East. Currently, the city of Charlotte is the nation’s second leading financial center and its Solid Waste Services Department (SWS), serves over 750,000residents, providinggarbage, recycling, yard waste and bulky item collection services. The department also offers a variety of special services such as street sweeping, small business garbage collection, right-of-way litter collection and dead animal collection. To ensure sound urban development, every two years qualifying residents are annexed into the city’s boundaries. The most recent annexation in 2009 added 6,730 new households into the service area, for a total of more than 205,000 single-family households needing waste services.

As of December 2010, SWS has 283 employees under the direction of Key Business Executive Victoria Garland-Johnson. There are six divisions (Collections, Special Services, Administration, Public Information, Contract Services and Technology Services) in the department. Initially, the department was housed in two different sites, one site for administration staff and the other for operations staff. In February 2010, the department moved into a newly constructed 37,361 square foot facility that houses the entire SWS department as well as a detached 4,400 square foot warehouse. The buildings are ergonomically designed to efficiently combine the department’s large operational components with its diverse administrative, clerical, technology and other support components. The new facilities incorporate a number of sustainable/green construction elements including energy efficient glazing, a high-efficiency HVAC system, and energy saving lighting features.

Reorganization to Reduce Costs

For more than a decade, SWS has used a managed competition business model to guide its operations to provide garbage, recycling, yard waste and bulky item collection services to Charlotte residents. Under this business model, the department has competed with the private sector for the right to provide collection services and it required the department to conduct independent operations in four defined collection zones—East, West, North and South. City crews provided residential collection services in all but the West Zone, where a private contractor provided service.The four-zone managed competition system, under which SWS operated, created artificial barriers to operational efficiencies such as better collection route design and the effective allocation of resources that could take advantage of economies of scale.

SWS believed there wasa better way of doing business and a potentially better, more efficientorganizational structure of the department and many of the processes used to provide service to Charlotte residents. Under the leadership of Garland-Johnson, SWS proposed to City Council an optimization plan to have the department be the exclusive citywideservice provider for select services. The plan eliminated the managed competition program, keeping the city from having to bid against private haulers and dissolving the quadrant operation model. A new optimized model now allows the city to provide collection by service type (garbage, yard waste, bulky items and recycling). This new model provides increased efficiency within the city and has allowed for reduced service costs while strengthening customer service.

Impact of the Economy

However, as with all business and industry, the state of the economy has affected the City of Charlotte’s organization and more specifically, the SWS Department. “The decision to have a major service reorganization of the department assisted us with the impact that the economy has had on the department,” says Garland-Johnson. “The reorganization allowed us to re-evaluate our department and structure in the most cost and employee effective ways possible. Improved routing and economies of scale realized after elimination of our four-zone structure, provided opportunities to achieve modest reductions in manpower and equipment. Fortunately, the restructure did not cause the department to lose any active employees. We were able to manage manpower reductions through normal attrition, retraining, and restructuring of duties to gain the most efficiency possible.”

With ongoing economic challenges, there have been constant budgetary restraints. Budget decreases, coupled with the rise in expenses, have caused SWS to not only make structural changes, but also city-wide process modifications. “One of our biggest challenges now is meeting and maintaining customer expectations with less revenue and rising expenses. With our recentimplementation of single stream recycling on a bi-weekly collection schedule using 96-gallon containers, we expect a savings of $4.38 million per year. Because we strategically decided to outsource the service, we have considerably less trucks in our fleet which has lowered our vehicle maintenance cost,” explains Garland-Johnson. “Bi-weekly rollout collection has resulted in improved route design and higher productivity, while providing expanded container capacity and easier set-out capabilities for our citizens.”

Although the continued economic downturn has forced SWS to implement hiring freezes, eliminate pay increases for employees and suspend gain sharing, the department has been focused on seeking ways to save money for the department and citywide organization without having to further cut employees. “With all the cutbacks, it’s challenging to keep employee morale high which has a direct bearing on customer relationships. In an effort to maintain positive morale, we consciously made the decision to keep employees abreast of all changes that occur within the department as well as the organization. Our employees understand the far-reaching effects that the national and local economic downturn has had on our organization and they are generally supportive of management’s efforts to improve efficiencies and reduce costs. Honest, open dialogue has been a positive force during these tough times.”

Anotherchallenge that SWS is facing is the fact that they have access to only one landfill. Garland-Johnson points out that because the landfill’s geographical location is not central and it causes those routes located furthest from the landfill to have a long commute time, it frequently translates into overtime for the employee and in the long term budget issues for the department.Long landfill commutes also result in higher fuel consumption and increased truck maintenance costs. The department’s reorganization has helped to mitigate some of this impact through improved efficiencies in route design.

Outstanding Achievements

One of the most outstanding achievements SWS is particularly proud of is the successful implementation of their service reorganization and the transition to single-stream recycling, which happened simultaneously in July 2010.

During the service reorganization, the four-zone concept was eliminated and SWS now collects garbage, yard waste and bulky items citywide, and a private sector service partner collects recyclables citywide. To implement the reorganization, route adjustments were necessary to maximize efficiency and citizen service. The route adjustments required service day changes for approximately 85 percent of Charlotte residents. Instead of collection services being spread throughout the city on different days of the week, the reorganization allows for all collection services to be structured within the same geographic area on a daily basis.

In alignment with the reorganization, SWS also implemented a single-stream recycling collection process using a bi-weekly collection schedule. This transition was an improvement to the existing recycling program and addressed citizens’ desires for an easier way to recycle and the ability to recycle more materials.

The service reorganization and the transition to single-stream recycling were successfully achieved with minimal problems due to a well-organized implementation plan. SWS spent many manpower hours on this dual project from an elaborate internal and external communication plan, logistics of cart delivery, new route creation and employee training.

As a result of their successful implementation, SWS surpassed all other city departments to receive the 2010 City Strategy Award—a highly coveted award selected by the City Manager each fiscal year to recognize the department that effectively implements the most impactful strategic project of the year. SWS has won this prestigious award for a second consecutive year having won it in fiscal 2009 for their implementation of a comprehensive vehicle tracking and reporting system using AVL technology. SWS is proud that their departmental reorganization and single-stream recycling strategy is projected to result in a savings of $4.3 million per year for the city. Additionally, the combined reduction of trucks related to implementation of their reorganization strategy and implementation of bi-weekly recycling means that 22 fewer trucks will be on the road. This results in lower emissions in Charlotte’s communities and supports SWS’ greater “Go Green” initiative.

Staying Active in the Community

SWS stays actively engaged with residents in the communities they serve primarily through their Public Information Division. Since Charlotte is a fairly diverse city, another issue that concerns SWS is educating the diversified residents (economic, race and other demographics) on the standards for collection. The Public Information staff educates residents on the services provided and guidelines associated with each service. “Through the Speakers Bureau program, staff offers interactive presentations on SWS-related information to neighborhoods, community organizations, churches, schools, civic organizations, etc. Presentations are customized to fit any group and topics range from how to recycle to the importance of our landfills,” says Garland-Johnson. “Through partnerships with property managers and homeowner associations, our staff ensures that new residents are provided educational materials for them to have successful collection practices. Residents are encouraged to visit our regularly updated Web site or speak with our customer services representatives to learn more about our services.”

SWS staff also partners with various community organizations to coordinate and participate in local events such as Earth Day, Wipe Out Waste Day and the Annual Neighborhood Symposium.

Participation in local events provides the perfect opportunity to distribute educational materials and communicate one-on-one with residents—answering questions and addressing service-related concerns.

SWS’ training and continuing education is an collaboration of the Public Information and Administration (Human Resources) Divisions. Those divisions provide training ranging from new employees, policies and procedures and they offer additional training tailored specifically to the need of the department. Says Garland-Johnson, “Our Public Information and Administration divisions are always actively seeking regulatory changes, policy amendments, ideas to improve standard operating procedures and industry related innovations that will assist in the advancement of the department as well as the city.”

Employees have the opportunity to enroll in training classes offered not only by the department, but also within the organization. SWS offers training to employees to obtain a commercial drivers license and equipment certifications, i.e., automation and rear loader trucks, street sweeper and forklift certifications. Additionally, employees are encouraged to participate in SWS’ Pathways program sponsored by Central Piedmont Community College. The alliance with the City and Central Piedmont for the Pathways program allows employees to attend classes to obtain their GED, enroll in certificate programs or participate in continuing education classes with tuition and books paid for by Solid Waste Services.

Goals and Future Plans

Currently, since SWS’ facility isnewly constructed and energy efficient, the department is actively working out all construction kinks typically inherited with new construction.

The department is also expanding a recently implemented pedestrian recycling initiative in the city’s Central Business District. A pilot program was implemented in mid-2010 that included installing 15 sidewalk recycling containers in high pedestrian areas to reduce the amount of trash that was going to the landfill. The program was successfully embraced by the public, resulting in few collection issues, so an additional 18 containers will be added to further reduce throwaways of paper, aluminum and plastic. A small electric sidewalk vehicle will be used to service the containers on a daily basis.

Additionally, SWS is actively involved in a collaborative effort with the Carolina Panthers, Center City parking lot owners, business sponsors and Mecklenburg County to promote and service “tailgate recycling” during Bank of America Stadium functions. The department diverted 29 percent of the waste generated during tailgating activities throughout 2010 and will strive to increase that percentage during 2011.

Finally, SWS is also piloting the use of compressed natural gas vehicles to explore the possibilities of using the low-emission vehicles on a broader scale in the future. There are currently two CNG vehicles in the solid waste fleet. Performance has been excellent thus far.

Says Garland-Johnson, “There are a number of “green“ initiatives, beyond single-stream recycling that Solid Waste Services is currently working on and expects to continue developing during the coming year.”

For more information about the City of Charlotte, NC Solid Waste Services Department, call (704) 336-2176 or visit


Victoria Garland-Johnson

Victoria Garland-Johnson leads Solid Waste Services as the key business executive delivering competitive and quality services. She manages 283 employees with a budget of approximately $43.1 million.

SWS New Building 12-20-10 001

In February 2010, Solid Waste Services moved into a newly constructed 37,361 square foot facility (with green practices) housing the entire Solid Waste Services Department.

CNG Truck Decal 12-20-10 001 CNG Truck Decal 12-20-10 003 CNG Truck Decal 12-20-10 004

Solid Waste Services is committed to going green, with two compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles in service that offers lower emissions and lower fuel cost than diesel gas.

Photos courtesy of the City of Charlotte, Solid Waste Services Department.