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Sweeping Debris Disposal

Sweeping Debris Disposal

Sweeping Is Only Half The Bid

Disposal, not sweeping, is becoming the central cost issue.

Clarence Sturwold started Clean-Way Sweeping Service, Inc., in the tough Chicago area marketplace back in 1979. Recognizing the promise held by the brand new technology of milling machines, Clarence got himself a contract to sweep behind one. To do the job he bought a new Elgin Whirlwind. Tom, who was then a teenager, got the job of keeping the sweeper and the other company trucks clean.

Clarence Sturwold

The family worked hard in their operation, stressed customer service and set as their goal to get enough additional business to warrant buying a new sweeper each year. As a result, today Clean-Way runs an 18 sweeper fleet that is mixed at 40% broom and 60% vacuum. After performing every other job in the company, Tom is now a 2nd generation manager and vice-president of one of the top sweeper companies in the state of Illinois and in the U.S.

In this article Tom talks about his concerns - well reasoned, we think - about where the municipal sweeping marketplace seems to be headed. His analysis contains a needed wakeup call to both municipalities and municipal sweeping contractors alike.


World Sweeper: Historically, what has a city looked for from your company as a sweeping contractor, and how has that changed today?
Sturwold: Cities have always wanted the sweeping company they hired to do a superb job of cleaning their streets. Although that has always meant picking up and disposing of the litter that was collected, today the disposal part has become the central issue, and represents a turning point in the industry. Disposal is a bigger headache and sometimes a larger part of the business than the sweeping, even though what we are running are sweepers, not garbage trucks.

Now when I bid on the sweeping, I also have to do extensive research on the dumping options. This has become so complex, and is changing so fast, that I have had to become what amounts to a full EPA representative. I feel like I could also qualify to be the CEO of a disposal company after I get done researching my disposal options prior to bidding a city job. I have to know everything there is to know about the dumping, too, and I can't even count on being able to use the information for other bids because it is all changing so very quickly. I think that, more and more, municipal contractors are losing valuable time from their sweeping business because they have to chase around disposal sites. And, because there is no way to lock in prices or even availability, our bid prices have to be much higher than they would otherwise be to cover what might happen concerning waste disposal options.

Municipal management needs to become educated to the reality that it would actually save them money in the long run, and be better for their citizens, if they handled the disposal end of sweeping. I've always felt that mine is a company that can come in and do a better job - take out more litter. There is becoming a larger and larger penalty for doing this, however, because the landfill costs can be such a big part of it. For the good of everyone concerned, the cities need to contract for disposal separately, whether they do it themselves or bid it out like they do other services.

If you want your garbage picked up you don't call a street sweeping company: I am in the street sweeping business, not the disposal business. It's extremely complex and full of uncertainty, and I know that other street sweeping companies are just as frustrated as I am. There's only one thing that any of us can do about it, and that's to bid our jobs high.

World Sweeper: A popular topic these days seems to be the categorizing of waste. The question arises of what happens if what you pick up today is deemed to be toxic 10 or 20 years from now? There is no question that a liability exists there. If municipalities bid the waste disposal part separately, on a cubic yard basis with the landfills, they would benefit by having more competitive bids in both areas. What have you seen personally happen in terms of litter being tougher to dispose of these days?

Sturwold: Landfills are a lot scarcer than they used to be, and today I have seen sweeping companies be shut off instantly. They don't even have to give you a reason, but right in the middle of your contract can say "Nope, we don't want any more." It's frustrating, because you don't know how to bid these towns anymore because of that. Yet, we are very good at our job of sweeping and would like to have the work. And with the EPA: I don't care how educated you are, you are never educated enough with all these new laws and the changes going around with the EPA, especially in my geographical area. There is no way to keep up with it all, and yet we're supposed to keep up with what can be done with the material.

I think that we have seen an increase of about 35 to 40 percent among municipalities going to private street sweeping contractors in the last three years, and the reason is not just so that they can get away from doing the sweeping themselves. It's because they have figured out what it costs for removal of the waste. And in the short run they might save money because street sweeping is such a competitive business. A municipality figures that if they can get five or six companies bidding on one job...someone will get it this year and someone else will take it the following year, regardless of profits. The boom is going to come down though. I think it's real close right now.

I'll give you an example: We had a village with 260 curb miles and I'd say within the last two years the price to sweep their village went up 70% plus. All because of their inability to be honest and say, "We have a big fall season and this is what's going to take place." I took a beating on it the first year and I bid very high the second year. Company X got the award and took a beating on it that year. By the third year, though, I couldn't believe the prices. Bids by every contractor were astronomically high, well over the town's budget, but they had to spend the money. They didn't think everybody was going to wake up at the same time, and they got caught with their hands in the candy jar, so to speak.

I think that if they had handled it differently they could have saved thousands and thousands of dollars. You are talking about $30,000 per sweep for 260 curb miles, and a large part of that is owed to hauling the litter away. To me that's outrageous.

World Sweeper: Are you saying that this town should do its own sweeping? What are you suggesting that they do?

Sturwold: In this particular instance, the town needs to go with a leaf collection unit in the fall, instead of farming it out and leaving the sweepers to do it. We all know that when someone sees a sweeper coming down the road the whole block comes out and throws everything over the curb line. By not having a leaf collection program, what you end up with is litter that falls into a different classification because it is mixed, not compostable. If they would handle their own leaf debris, they could save themselves a ton of money. If they've got me doing it, of course I have to make a profit. I don't know how much debris I am going to get, neither does anyone else who is bidding, and none of us can get rid of it as compost.

World Sweeper: So you have to overbid based on what might happen?

Sturwold: Yes, I have to bid based upon the worst case scenario. All the bids will predictably be some thousands over just to have the needed cushion. The volume is variable depending upon the severity of the year, and any mixed materials can't be composted. Another factor can be that municipalities want everything to be brought to a state licensed landfill. My question to them is why is dirt landfill material? The answer is that because oil, anti-freeze and so forth is dripping off of automobiles, and because of diesel fuel and soot and so on and so forth, there is contamination... Well, if it's contaminated material, to be honest with you, I have no business picking it up.

In order to do that, in order to pick up contaminated material, wouldn't you have to be properly educated on how to haul and how to deal with that type of material? And you would have to be a special type of waste hauler even to pick that material up. So I think that what's going on is that as a country, via the EPA, there is an attempt to clean things up. Unfortunately, however, it is causing mass confusion. There is confusion with the municipalities because they don't know how to address it, and it's causing mass confusion with the contractors because they, too, don't know quite what to do with it or how to deal with it. There is going to be a tremendous long run impact on the street sweeping industry.

World Sweeper: Are you suggesting that what we need is mandatory testing of the municipal litter stream, so that everybody in the industry knows what they are picking up and so that the techniques for handling can be what they should be?

Sturwold: Well, the scary part of it is that it seems headed in that one direction. For example, now they want litter to be 100% compost. If you have a can or a cigarette butt or any other type of paper debris mixed in, it will be considered contaminated compost and they won't accept it. Now, say that you are picking up dirt and it has some leaves in it - that is considered contaminated compost. And it's up to the sweeper company to separate these two items and dispose of them properly. That's not even including the issue of possible real toxicity.

Are we going to see street sweepers in rubber suits pretty soon, and the street sweeping industry an EPA-controlled industry? Are we going to have to be licensed to pick up debris or even sweep certain areas? Isn't this a movement toward a classification of toxic waste?

World Sweeper: It does seem like we are moving towards waste becoming more, rather than less, toxic. I think it's safe to say that the waste stream is going to become scarier as time goes on.

Sturwold: Exactly, and that's something that these cities, at least the smaller ones, don't know what to do anything about. That's the problem.

This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, v3n2 1994.

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