Not only remaining steadfast in meeting the requirements of Senate Bill 1383, which will require the diversion of organic waste from landfills, but San Diego’s Environmental Services Department also thrives on offering diverse training strategies and making necessary adjustments to remain competitive in the market.
With a population of more than 1.4 million, the City of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department serves the residents living in the City of San Diego, ensuring that they are provided with a clean and safe environment. It also pursues waste management strategies that emphasize waste reduction and recycling, composting and environmentally sound landfill management. The department is also responsible for the collection and disposal of refuse, recyclables, household hazardous waste and green waste. With more than 550 budgeted positions and operating approximately 239 active fleet vehicles, a majority being refuse collection packer trucks, the Department includes three Divisions—Collection Services, Disposal & Environmental Protection, and Waste Reduction.
The Collection Services Division provides weekly residential refuse collection, biweekly collection of recyclables and greens, and collection and maintenance of street litter containers in business districts. The Disposal & Environmental Protection Division operates a full-service landfill and organic recycling facility at the Miramar Landfill, spanning more than 1,500 acres and receiving approximately 870,000 tons of trash per year; maintains eight closed landfills and eight inactive burn sites; ensures regulatory compliance of the City’s underground fuel storage tanks; and provides household hazardous waste education and outreach. Finally, the Waste Reduction Division is responsible for zero waste planning; provides education, training, and programs for residents and businesses; enforces solid waste and recycling codes; and conducts illegal dump abatements and community cleanups.
The Department collects a variety of recyclables, such as plastic, glass bottles and jars, paper, newspaper, metal containers, cardboard, and rigid plastics, including clean food containers, jugs, tubs, trays, pots, buckets, and toys. The recyclables are taken to several different material recovery facilities across the city that are operated by private companies.
A Changing Workforce
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the Department’s daily refuse collection operation. As a result, supply chain shortages have hampered the ability to receive fleet replacement parts promptly, affecting daily truck availability and operations. “The Department has a unique approach to this issue: rather than reducing or eliminating service (which has been done in many areas around the nation), we intentionally delay selected routes to the following day. This creates a cascade effect which allows Saturday (and sometimes Sunday) to finish all collection,” says Renee Robertson, Environmental Services Director. “We also partner with the City’s Performance and Analytics Department to enhance customer notifications on the Get it Done website. Customers can use Get it Done to report a missed collection or perform other digital services. The website and mobile app have real-time updated maps and information for customers on a one-day service delay. We also send e-mail notifications to council offices and neighborhood social platforms like NextDoor.”
The pandemic also created a shortage of qualified commercial drivers across the U.S. To combat this, the Department received approval from the San Diego City Council in December 2021 to implement a hiring bonus of $2,500 and to increase sanitation driver pay by 25 percent, allowing the Department to remain competitive in the labor market. As a result of these proactive initiatives, the Department is on track to fill all its vacancies within the next two months. ‘“The number one challenge for our industry is the changing workforce and our ability to hire, train, and retain highly qualified employees. If we cannot keep highly qualified employees, we could experience increased accidents or risk liability associated with less experienced employees performing safety-sensitive functions,” says Robertson. “We also may experience regulatory compliance issues (especially in California) at our recycling, landfill, composting, and collection facilities. Our employees are our biggest assets.” The Department has the ability to hire at the trainee level and fully train a commercial driver, so management attends in-person job fairs, uses signs on their trucks and landfill, and promotes hiring on social media and at local community events, such as the San Diego Pride Parade in July 2022.
The Department regularly holds safety training “tailgates” with a wide variety of staff, including those that work in safety-sensitive functions at the City’s landfill and as sanitation drivers. These tailgates cover a wide range of topics and are designed to educate the Department’s workforce on the safe operation of equipment and the Department’s policies and procedures. They also have a safety and training section, and the trainings are held at the operational yards monthly. “The City offers free LinkedIn learning accounts to all city employees. Employees can also listen to training on leadership,
diversity and inclusion, and hundreds of other topics while in the field or at the end of their day. We offer diverse training strategies and keep specific information to the point for each area. For example, the training team uses practical examples for each work group based on the specific job they do. We are constantly using our national waste and recycling industry associations to improve our safety program,” explains Robertson.
The Department’s Waste Reduction Division regularly holds community outreach events designed to educate the City’s residents on proper recycling and refuse disposal, such as Earth Day at Balboa Park, the Pride Parade, and large community block fairs/events. Some sanitation drivers also assist with community outreach events through children’s Storytime at public libraries and recreation centers.
Building an Infrastructure
Currently, the Department has remained steadfast in meeting the requirements of Senate Bill 1383, which will require the diversion of organic waste from landfills. To fulfill this requirement, the Department has procured 43 new packer trucks, hired 40 additional sanitation drivers, and is planning assembly and distribution services for approximately 240,000 additional containers for delivery to residents in January 2023. “These requirements represent the largest change to the solid waste system since Assembly Bill 939. We have hired a marketing consultant to specifically help with habit change. Residents will also get mailers and information delivered with their new containers. The marketing campaign will include billboards, social media posts, and videos along with many other outreach strategies,” says Robertson. “The Department looks forward to successfully implementing Senate Bill 1383, which requires us to provide weekly organics collection to all eligible residents. This expanded program will assist the city with the implementation of its climate action plan by providing the necessary infrastructure to divert methane-creating organic waste from the City’s landfill. This monumental effort is the most significant expansion of services in the Department’s history.” | WA