After months of anticipation and hand-wringing, automated trash pickup is in full swing in Braintree.
The program, questioned and debated by town officials and residents right up to its Sept. 30 start, means Braintree has joined a growing number of area communities, including Abington and Weymouth, switching to trash-collection trucks equipped with a robotic arm operated by the driver.
Officials for Braintree and its trash contractor, Sunrise Scavenger, expect automated pickup to increase recycling, save money, reduce injuries to collectors, and keep streets looking neater. But they also acknowledge its implementation has been marked by hiccups in service and by reluctance from some residents.
“Every transition to a new vendor, especially in waste disposal, doesn’t happen without flaws,” said Peter Morin, chief of staff and operations for Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan. “To their credit, Sunrise has been responsive as we’ve worked through many of the issues.”
Some seniors complained that the standardized 64-gallon blue and green trash carts used in automated pickup are too cumbersome for them to move to the curb, while large families said having one barrel each for trash and recycling was not enough.
Officials said have since delivered smaller trash carts, and additional full-size containers to residents who requested them, albeit for an extra $100.
Among the other snags: A few people who paid their annual $150 trash fee weren’t credited for the payment, and trucks are initially being staffed with a second worker to retrieve bins that residents have placed too close to parked cars, blocking the remote-controlled arm from reaching the bins.
But despite those bumps, most residents said they are adapting to the change.
“I love it,” said Dave Oliva, head of the East Braintree Civic Association. “If people can’t fit all of their trash into one of those big trash cans, maybe they need help recycling more. Right now, I have four people living in my house, and my recycling bin is almost full and my trash can has just a couple bags.
“It might be a little less convenient for some people, but in the long run it’s a great idea.”
Braintree officials love recycling too, and not just for environmental reasons — the town pays by the ton to dispose of trash, while recycling costs nothing, so shifting waste into the recycling bin saves money.
“We had just reached a plateau with recycling,” said Jeffrey Kunz, Braintree’s waste coordinator. “If you drove down streets six months ago on any given pickup day, you’d see about 50 to 60 percent of households recycled, and others just didn’t take the time. It was just too easy to throw trash out. We’re trying to change the mind-set to recycling first and trash second.”
However, labor costs, not recycling, is the program’s biggest source of savings, officials said. While the old system required two or three workers per truck, only a driver is needed on the new automated machines. Using the robotic arm, the driver grabs the trash and recycling bins and empties them into the truck, a process that takes around eight seconds at each house.
The system halves the number of workers needed and eliminates costly workman’s compensation claims from collectors who commonly wrenched backs and twisted ankles while maneuvering heavy waste barrels.
Kunz, who hopes to push the town’s recycling rate above 80 percent and calls automated pickup “the wave of the future,” said he favors the $100 fee for additional trash barrels as a disincentive to throw out what can be recycled.
But others, like Town Councilor Sean Powers, disagree, saying the money Braintree saves should be passed on to residents.
“We need to work out whether that extra $100 is in addition to the annual fee, and I don’t think it be should be,” Powers said. “This new system requires folks in Braintree to do some more work than they had to previously, and my thought is, they should get some relief in the form of reducing the annual trash fee by using the savings the mayor anticipates.”
Powers said the issue will be hashed out at Town Council meetings, along with deciding what to do with the money Braintree expects to save.
“Myself and a few other councilors are going to be monitoring financials of this program very closely to allocate the savings,” he said.
Braintree turned to Boston-based Sunrise Scavenger this summer, a few months after a regional trash-collection system with Quincy and Weymouth fell apart. Quincy withdrew from the pact first, but Braintree officials now acknowledge the collaboration had stopped saving much money.
“During the first three or four years of the tri-town effort, we saved hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Morin said. “But the labor costs for the vendor were growing at a rate that we weren’t comfortable with, and that made them less attractive for Braintree.”
While the number of communities with automated pickup has grown steadily, experts said the system is not suited to more densely settled cities like Boston, where parked cars would make it nearly impossible for the robotic arm to reach bins on the sidewalk.
“I think there’s going to be a heightened interest in it, going forward, but it has to be the right mix,” said Sunrise spokeswoman Nancy Sterling. “You have to have towns that are willing to make the investment, and you need the right streetscape where it works in a practical sense.”
For now, automation is proceeding largely as planned. What remains to be seen is whether the program will realize the hoped-for savings, and whether it will remain feasible through a tough New England weather.
“The winter is going to be tough,” Oliva said. “That’s going to be the real test, when you’ve got three- to four-foot snowbanks in front of your house and you’ve got to get the barrels out there. Maybe we’ll want the humans back then.”
Dan Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.