Bob Yoos, Lawrence's solid waste superintendent, estimates that it would cost about $5 million to create a once-per-week curbside recycling service.
About $1.75 million of the cost is for a recycling center where Lawrence workers would sort and prepare the recycled materials for sale. Yoos said he believes it isn't feasible - especially with rising fuel costs - to transport the material to an existing recycling center in Kansas City that is used by several other communities in the metro area.
In Randy Weldon's world, three fingers are now doing the work of two men.
Weldon these days spends his time with one hand on a steering wheel and his other on a video game-like controller. No, he's not playing a game, but some days it surely seems like it compared to what he used to do. He used to spend hour after hour hanging on to the back of a trash truck, waiting to clean-and-jerk somebody's filthy garbage can.
But now Weldon says he's working smarter, not harder. He pushes a few buttons and a robotic arm extends from his $250,000 rig and snatches a special plastic trash container. The arm does all the heavy lifting, swinging the 95-gallon bin over the top of the truck and then returning it to the curb.
About eight seconds have passed from start to finish, and Weldon is ready to go and grab once again. And the best part is that Weldon doesn't have to wait on two co-workers to jump onto the back of the truck. He's now a one-man crew.
"There are a lot of times it has cut an hour to an hour and half off my day," Weldon said. "Automated is faster. There is no way around that."
Technology and trash have collided.
But it is not happening on a high-tech frontier or even in one of the larger cities you may expect. Weldon picks up trash in Eudora, and in the process has provided the town of about 6,000 people with one of the more advanced trash collection systems in the Kansas City metro area.
"It is a trend that is definitely coming," said Weldon, who is a vice president of Eudora-based Weldon Enterprises. "This is how they've been collecting trash on the coasts for years."
A Lawrence look
But it is not how they collect trash in Lawrence. Here, nearly all of the city's 21 trash trucks are staffed by a three-person crew that hangs and heaves.
A group of Kansas University students, though, is urging city leaders to convert the city's fleet to an automated model. The students - a mix of graduate and undergraduate students in a designing business services and consumer experience class - believe the conversion could be the key to the city adding curbside recycling service.
City leaders long have been asked about creating a once-per-week curbside recycling program, but staff members have balked at the cost. The most current estimate is that a once-per-week service would add $12 a month to every household's bill, whether residents used the service or not.
But Ryan Hembree, a graduate student in the KU class, said he's not convinced the city has looked broadly enough at the issue.
"We're saying that we understand curbside recycling is a huge cost, but perhaps you can make some changes to your operation and save enough money that it evens out," Hembree said. "We don't think there has to be a huge cost increase."
'Boots on the ground'
Bob Yoos, solid waste superintendent for the city, wishes there was a magic truck that could make everybody's desire for cheap, curbside recycling come true. But he's not convinced.
That's in part because Yoos knows Lawrence is a tough city to tame when it comes to picking up trash. Yoos said university towns are challenging places because there are multiple times of the year - namely move-in and move-out days - when students produce piles of trash.
"An automated truck is not going to work for that," Yoos said. "You need manpower and boots on the ground."
Yoos also said the fact that Lawrence has large amounts of trash collection that occurs in alleys - where space is tight - makes the use of automated trucks problematic. He said that also holds true for the many neighborhoods where on-street parking is the only option.
"I really feel like we would be limited in the areas that we could use those types of trucks," Yoos said.
Start-up costs also would be significant. Weldon said the automated truck costs about $100,000 more than a traditional trash truck. Maintenance costs also are higher, he said. Providing residents with the special plastic containers also can cost anywhere from $40 to $80 per household, industry representatives said. And in Eudora, the new system did bring the first rate increase in three years. Trash rates increased from $9.60 per month to $13.
Weldon, though, is convinced the system is the best fit for a changing future. Since starting the system in Eudora last fall, he's also implemented it in De Soto. His brother's company also started operating an automated truck in Tonganoxie in January.
Weldon already knows the system saves time. Eventually, he thinks it will save money in terms of worker's compensation insurance and fuel.
But Weldon thinks the biggest reason more communities will switch to the system is an increased emphasis on being environmentally friendly.
That's because the new system requires residents to fit all their trash into a single 95-gallon container, or else pay $3 extra per month for an additional trash container.
"You have people calling you to ask what they can do with this extra trash, and that gives you the opportunity to explain the benefits of recycling," Weldon said. "I feel like that is the direction we have to go because we know the landfill is not going to be here forever."