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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: In the garbage sector, there’s waste – and then there’s just wasting time

Solid Waste Department driver Rob Lynch picks up garbage in North Spokane Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane spans roughly 60 square miles. But for garbage truck drivers, traversing the city means far more mileage – and headache.

Navigating from house to house to house, all garbage trucks in Spokane drive a total of about 16,500 miles per week, consuming the equivalent of around 3,800 gallons of diesel in fuel, city waste management officials say. At any given time, 50 of the city’s 98 trucks are serving the area.

In planning and implementing their routes, drivers must take into account various factors, such as what streets they can and cannot back out of, when certain parking lots are open and at what points they will need to refuel and unload.

“You’re looking for the most efficient way to go through an area,” said Rick Hughes, solid waste collections manager with the city of Spokane.

Before 2018, drivers followed paper maps, and if they encountered an issue, such as too much garbage to pick up, they would have to call in each incident while on the route. Drivers communicated through radios, and if a customer had a problem, they could not get answers fast.

Now, the city has technology on which it spends almost $160,000 annually and which cuts total time spent on routes “7-8%,” Hughes said, and improves customer service and overall convenience for all parties.

Spokane partners with Rubicon Global, a software company based in Kentucky, to provide the city with a comprehensive database on the garbage trucks.

Technology installed in each vehicle stores information on the truck, including how many hours it has been in use – and therefore when it might need maintenance – and its location at any given time.

Drivers carry tablets with them, which they use to take notes and photos, flag houses, and keep track of their stops.

Citywide, these stops range from 27,000 to 31,000 stops daily, Kirstin Davis, Spokane Public Works spokeswoman, said in an email.

Though drivers usually memorize their routes within a few weeks, Hughes explained, each of their stops is stored in order on Rubicon, allowing them to see on their tablets where they have stopped and where they need to go next. Stops are presented as dots on a map that change color as drivers get to them.

When a customer calls 311, the city of Spokane’s customer service line, with an issue regarding their trash collection, the service representative on the other end can quickly and easily tell the customer what time the route came through and any notes the driver left by accessing Rubicon.

Six years ago, “the customer would call the City’s solid waste department and be connected with a clerk, who would then have to contact a driver out on the route by radio and wait for a response before being able to assist the customer… Now we are able to pull real time information,” Davis’s email read.

Hughes said drivers’ responses to the system has been positive, as it enables them to better communicate with each other.

“At the end of the day, drivers can check on each other,” he said.

Rather than relying on roundabout communication with superiors, by logging on to another driver’s route, “drivers can see who needs help on their own, they can do it themselves and they can do it pretty quickly,” Hughes said.

If needed, they can then take on a few stops of a coworker who’s falling behind.

Work to watch out forThe north curb lane of Spokane Falls Boulevard, between Wall Street and Monroe Street, is closed from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday.

Geiger Boulevard from Electric Road to Pilot Drive remains closed this week for water pipeline work.

Division Street’s left turn lane is closed Monday from Francis Avenue to Dalke Avenue.

Through Thursday, the north curb lane of Second Avenue, from Stevens Street to Howard Street, as well as the northbound curb lane of Howard Street, from Riverside Avenue to Second Avenue, will be closed for work by Broadband Development Group.

Napa Street will be reduced to one lane from Trent Avenue to Riverside Avenue starting Tuesday through Nov. 21.

Though Dec. 5, North Sky communications work will close Post Street between Main Avenue and Riverside Avenue from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day.

Roberta Simonson's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.