by Ranger Kidwell-Ross
City of Contrasts, City of Change
As I review the following story I've just written, it's clearly a saga consisting of two parts. The first part includes information about how one city is handling its street and associated area cleanup: its specific challenges, the equipment it uses, and how it gets the job done. The second part reflects the city's reaction to being introduced to a new type of sweeping technology -- regenerative air -- and the hopes of all those involved that it will change the way sweeping is done in Southampton. As with any new technology, only time will tell. However, given the way the environmentally-friendly regenerative air systems have swept the U.S. and Australia markets, I'll be surprised if the U.K. doesn't embrace the same winds of change, as well.
For a variety of reasons, Southampton City Council faces a tough challenge in keeping its approximately 840 curb miles clean. Fortunately, due to the commitment of Council managers to pursue an aggressive and innovative campaign of improvement, the city appears to be well up to the task.
Having been devastated by bombings during World War II, Southampton is a mix of the old and the new. Although there are core areas of older buildings, most have been replaced with newer construction in the past 50 years. Streets of the city are, overall, in relatively poor condition due to the ravages of time and the irregularities caused by frost damage. These two factors create difficulties in keeping the streets clean, because it's hard to keep plants from growing in the pavement cracks, and the uneven pavement makes any sweeper's job more difficult. Southampton is also a well-known seaport, so it faces the additional challenges associated with docks and shipping.
Because Southampton's streets are relatively narrow and usually have cars parked on both sides, many of the sweepers are smaller units with a high degree of maneuverability. Smaller machines also allow the operator to drive up onto the sidewalk -- called "footpaths" in England -- in order to clean those areas. This is what is called "precinct sweeping." In recent years, as the city has moved to increased mechanization, they've added larger sweepers to take care of the major streets.
As part of their generous hospitality to us I spent time with three members of the Council's management team, all named John (or Jon). As a result, I'm using their last names to identify which was which --I hope I've kept good track! I was also treated to a delightful and delicious lunch in the employee lunchroom, and engaged in conversation with several of their sweeper operators. (I heartily recommend Wendy's beef and tomato soup to anyone who's passing nearby!)
There to greet me was John Garnham, the Council's coordinator for Open Spaces Area Cleansing. "Although the Council used only Johnston sweepers for many years," Garnham told me, "our current mix of smaller machines consists of 7 Schmidt Swingos, 2 Scarab Minors and a Johnston 2000. For road sweepers, we have 2 Johnston 600s and a Schorling that's basically a copy of the Johnston design. Two Schwarze A6500s, which are quite similar to the A7000 model in the U.S., are on order to replace the two older Johnston 600s. [They originally bought three Johnston 600s but, three years ago, one was replaced by a Schorling -- for reasons a driver named Simon will explain a little further along.]
"A lot of the side roads in Southampton are car parks," said Garnham, referring to the lack of parking throughout the city. That's because, when the city was rebuilt after the war, provisions were made for only one car per household. Today the average is more toward two and, like in most urban areas, zoning has moved toward denser housing.
"There's no sense putting any sort of really big machine in there," he continued. "The smaller ones can get in, whereas the bigger ones can't do the job because of the angle that has to be taken to get in and out of where the cars are parked. Fortunately, since our debris-dump depot is right close to the center of town, it's no problem for the small machines to unload fairly frequently."
About 10 years ago, Garnham explained, the Council was first required to bid out its sweeping services. The in-house sweeping program put together a bid in an attempt to keep its job, competing against 32 other entities wanting to win the contract! A few bids came from companies as far away as Italy. Proudly, the Council program won the bid to keep performing its own sweeping. Five years later, when the contract was required to be re-bid, they won again. That time, only three other companies bid against them since they'd proven so competitive the first time.
Now, the law has been changed to make Southampton a "best value local authority." This means they are no longer required to keep going out to bid, but their program is checked on a continuous basis by other agencies to ensure efficiency and quality. They are also subject to regular audits, and have to maintain the prescribed standards or the sweeping program can be taken away from the Council.
Swept debris is dumped in an area at the Council depot, where recyclables and other miscellaneous appliances, etc., are stored for eventual disposal. Many of their sweepers can also tip into vehicles, if need be. The dumping area is regularly checked by an environmental agency, and if the city lets a buildup accumulate, or if anything else is found amiss, the agency can take away Southampton's ability to dispose of its own debris, since an EPA license is required for operation.
Next I spoke with Jon Dyer-Slade, Open Spaces Manager for Southampton. He discussed what might be called 'the big picture' of how the city is monitoring its focus to adapt and prosper in current times. "We want to look at all the different aspects involved in cleaning up Southampton," said Dyer-Slade. "We're engaging the community to do its part, from not dropping stuff in the first place to helping keep areas clean. Where we can make an impact is in how we do the cleanup.
"The bit we were missing, I'd think, was the fact that we had older generation sweepers. We had invested in a new type three years ago [Simon's sweeper], but it didn't even work as well as the older ones. We felt we were in a cycle of actually getting worse, and what we wanted was to break that cycle and get a lot better.
"So, we set up a service improvement group that involved the sweeper drivers and other sweeping team members to solicit their ideas about what would actually work. At the end of the day, management can choose the shiniest-looking machine in the world, but if the drivers don't want to use it, or it doesn't work, the sweeper won't do any good. We went out to look at what was available, and found a type of sweeper that looked like a really good idea. Our drivers liked the way the Schwarze sweeper was designed and operated.
"We then went through a lengthy trial period with the Schwarze machines to 'see if we could break it,' for lack of a better term. Obviously, it's a different method of sweeping, and we had heard all sorts of stories about how the machine wouldn't be able to do this and it won't be able to do that or the other. So, we tried it for ourselves and found it could do everything we wanted it to do and more. We looked at the life costs of the machine over the length of time we would be using it, and we found that it compared very favorably, alongside the fact that it would do a better job.
"We thought it was definitely worth the risk, given that it's a new technology to the U.K., since we are a global market these days. Our feeling is that it's worked well elsewhere, so why shouldn't it work well in the U.K., given that we've tested it out at our most challenging time -- when we had all of our wet, soggy leaves. [Southampton has an estimated 40,000 trees.]
"One of the things we've discovered is that our traditional sweepers block up very quickly during leaf sweeping. We tried our best to block up the Schwarze 6500, but we didn't manage to achieve that. I'm sure we will, but not several times a day like the sweepers we have now. It takes half an hour to an hour to unblock them, so we see a lot of advantages in the changeover.
"We see this new technology as one of the key building blocks for the future of our street cleaning program. We also think it will have a huge impact on our weed treatment program, since this type of sweeper also removes the growing medium from the street. The weeds can't grow on concrete, but they have been growing in the fine particles that are left sitting on the concrete. So, the area will look better, and the visual impact is what it's all about. We really think this new sweeper technology can be an element to achieve that.
"We also tested the Schwarze sweeper on our shingle areas and other bits. [The term 'shingle' refers to detritus that's been thrown up from the beaches. The material is difficult for a sweeper to pick up because it is typically slimy and hard-packed.] It went very well, and we are quite excited about getting delivery of the two machines we ordered.
Editor's Note: Unfortunately, and for reasons unknown, Schwarze Industries, Inc. pulled out of the U.K. marketplace shortly after this article was written. Since the company had spent considerable resources first in 'enlightening' the public works people of U.K. about the many advantages of regenerative air sweeping, this left the door open to other regenerative air manufacturers to come in and fill the gap left by the Schwarze pullout. As of early 2005, it appears that Elgin is the primary recipient of Schwarze's leaving the U.K. market.
"We have our city in a condition now where we're scoring in the high 90s for cleanliness standards. We've moved up from the high 80s, which is where we were two years ago. This score is based on having a random percentage of our roads checked on a daily basis. We check to see if there is 'no litter at all,' 'small amounts of litter,' 'small accumulations of litter,' or 'large accumulations of litter.' The first two are graded 'A' and 'B,' and obviously what we want are all 'A's.
"People drop litter, bags split open and so forth, so there is always going to be some amount of litter around. The difficult part is that when you've made it into the mid-'90s, any extra percentage is very hard to achieve. And you only need a little bit of a problem to knock it all back. Our roads are obviously where the focus needs to be now. I think [the environmental side] is going to become a bigger issue in the next few years."
John Martin, City Cleansing Officer for Open Spaces, joined us in the conference room, and he talked to us about some of the general issues Southampton faces. "We sweep every road with a minimum frequency of 4 weeks, including all residential areas," Martin said. "The major trunk roads are swept more often, the main arteries on at least a weekly basis, and the downtown center is done daily. We coordinate our precinct sweepers with the road sweepers to provide the best results.
"Unfortunately, many of our roads are not in very good condition and, as a result, are harder to sweep. We think these new sweepers will do a better job, and this will help keep our roads in better condition, since there will be less damage from plants growing in the cracks. When we get rid of all the detritus, we won't have to spray as much, either.
"Southampton is quite a compact city. It has a lot of areas that were developed post-war, because of the heavy bombing damage it suffered. However, since the parking provision required at that time was for one car per household, now, on many of our streets, we have no place to put cars in order to sweep the roads. We're a university town, so there's a large influx of students. In multiple application areas, where many of them live, you might have four students per house and all of them have a car. We use two men with backpack blowers, because in some places that's all you can do. Unfortunately, we're having to encroach on some of our green areas in order to put in car parking. That's something no one wants to do."
Every day, the Council computer randomly selects sections of streets that are then checked for cleanliness. These are not entire streets, but specific segments of a street. That's how the grading (discussed above) is done, by checking random sections on a daily basis.
The federal government has encouraged EnCams, which stands for Environmental Campaigns [http://www.encams.org/] to review how cleanliness monitoring is performed. They're the primary organization that's overseeing environmental cleanliness. EnCams has worked with the government departments in the U.K. to re-evaluate how they look at litter. And, the result is to not just look at litter, but to evaluate detritus of all types.
Another service the Council offers is car and truck inspection that must, by law, be performed every two years. For commercial vehicles, it's performed every year. It's quite a thorough inspection, and a way of assuring vehicles on the road will be safe. The MOT service also provides income to the Council. It's a service the Council has to bid on, and similarly has to bid on doing its own mechanical work on its equipment fleet.
Although not exactly related to sweeping, the way Southampton handles its graffiti removal is very state-of-the-art. When graffiti is discovered, on a building or elsewhere, a Council officer is dispatched to take pictures of it with a GPS-enabled digital camera. The camera sends the photos, along with the physical address of the graffiti, directly to the contractor responsible for its removal. "Most of the graffiti artists sign their 'art' with a 'tag' or signature," Martin told me. "Since we're now compiling this data, if we eventually catch the guy, we'll have detailed information and photos for use as evidence. We can show the location, date, and everything else, so they can't normally wriggle out of it." The system also ensures that graffiti is removed in a timely fashion.
The Southampton management struck me as a group that has its eyes wide open as they roll into the future. They appear progressive, competent, and interested in improvement wherever they can find it. Equally important, they know the value of involving members of their entire organization in the process.
Southampton sweeper operators exhibited a camaraderie that only develops from being treated well and enjoying one's work. Because I had the opportunity to have lunch with some of the sweeper operators, I was treated to a few of their personal stories. One is a humorous recount -- well, in retrospect, anyway -- about one of those quirky things that can happen while driving a sweeper. The other story showcases what can happen when operators are given a level of involvement in the operations and procurement process.
As Southampton Council becomes increasingly faced with the many difficulties the future is bound to hold, my guess is its citizens are in good hands. Southampton, a city with a rich history, also appears to have a bright horizon.