Seattle picks up residential garbage like virtually every other city in America. With what the industry refers to as Honking Huge Truck (HHTs). These trucks are enormous. They are noisy. They get into a lot of little accidents. Even though garbage trucks represent a tiny fraction of the total vehicle miles driven worldwide, they spew an astonishing 10 percent of global particulate matter into the air. And because HHTs weigh so much they tear the hell out of a city’s pavement.
Up the road, in Everett, there is an alternative.
The residential garbage in Everett is picked up by the Rubatino Refuse Removal Company. Rubatino's uses a traditional large compacting truck to drive down the arterials. But they have two smaller garbage trucks that fan out along the parallel roads and alleys picking up the trash from each house. These little satellite trucks are the familiar Cushman three-wheeled vehicles, the kind used by parking enforcement patrols. They've been customized for trash pickup; a large (two-square-yard) capacity bin on the back holds the collected garbage.
When satellite trucks arrive at the mothership, they back up and, using hydraulic lifts, dump their load into the HHT. Then off they go, like an apple picker loading up a couple of bushels and bringing them back to the large truck for the trip to the processor.
Everett has been using the satellite system since at least the 1970’s; no one working at the Rubatino Company remembers exactly when the company adopted this system or who came up with it. The Cushman Company is no longer in business, but there are many alternative vehicles available. The Polaris Corporation, for example, makes an electric vehicle, which looks almost exactly like Everett's Cushmans. It comes with a dump box on the back whose payload capacity is 930 pounds.
These electric mini trucks cost about $15,000. And unlike HHTs, the satellite trash trucks are nearly silent, less polluting, not accident prone and they do the job faster.
Seattle's contract with its garbage companies calls on each HHT to pick up between 750 and 1,000 households per shift. In Everett, one mothership HHT and two small satellite trucks collect from 1,000 households per shift, according to the people at Rubatino. Everett residents pay a $19.83 monthly pickup charge for one 32-gallon garbage can. Seattleites pay $29.80.
So why doesn’t Seattle, and every other city, use satellite trucks for trash pickup? They are cleaner, quieter, safer and cheaper. If garbage rates are any indication, Everett's rates are two-thirds of Seattle’s for the same pickup service.
Maybe garbage companies prefer the traditional, slower method because it costs more for them to operate. Profit is always a percentage of total cost. The higher the total cost, the higher the profit. Maybe city employees who contract out for garbage pickup lack an incentive to change; they get paid the same whether they save money on pickup or maintain the status quo.
Maybe it is simply a matter of ‘doing what we’ve always done’. But maybe that doesn’t cut it anymore.