Plymouth swingos into action

A thriving tourism industry means that Plymouth has an uphill task when it comes to street cleansing. But the city council is rising to the challenge.

Plymouth City Council is facing a modern aggressive armada of waste that threatens the growing economy of the city - and it is fighting back with a coordinated strategy involving mechanical sweepers and hands-on manual teams. The battle may never be completely won, but Plymouth is better than average for its street cleanliness and last year was awarded five stars in the Clean Britain Awards. Gordon Paton, waste services manager, is the general waging the war.

"We have a motto in the office - when we go out of the depot we are going to make a difference - every driver sets out to achieve a cleaner city. The key factor in any purchasing decision is whether the machine is capable of handling the environment we will work it in.

"As a seaside city we have got some very steep roads just inland and the sweeper has to be able to drive up these often narrow streets and lanes applying the same sweeping power as if it was on the level. If it cannot manage to do that, it's no good to us. Plymouth has several steep streets and narrow alleyways, some with gradients of 20%. When considering which sweepers to join the fleet we always take them to these locations - it's surprising just how many cannot even get up the hill, let alone sweep as well."

Keep on sweeping
The other factor involves the drivers as they need to be out on the streets sweeping for as long as possible, not returning to the depot every hour or so to unload then drive back to the site. Paton says that a big hopper and high productivity not only makes the whole operation more efficient, but also increases the job satisfaction for his drivers. Route planning is also important. It involves covering - and cleaning - 9,900km every month, up and down hills and around tourism hot spots. In addition, there are several residential areas in the heart of the city so noise is also a factor.

"Residents may have been kept awake until the early hours by the entertainment scene and the last thing they want is a sweeper cleaning the pavements at 4am when our first shift starts," explains Paton. "By identifying areas that need more frequent sweeping we can target them with increased visits, but still maintain a street cleansing service throughout the city. We also have to plan for events in the city, and each year there are 65 major events to plan for."

Take a leaf out of Plymouth's book
In 2009 Plymouth City Council cleaned up 6,101 tonnes of litter, and because of the high number of trees alongside roads and pavements, collected over 9,000 tonnes of leaves, which were sent for composting. The street scene fleet consists of 74 full time staff and an array of truck sweepers, dedicated graffiti-cleaning vans and mobile teams that can be called to any emergencies, and 23 operatives for the barrow rounds.

But Paton says the jewels in the fleet are the nine Schmidt Swingos. "Many years ago I was a driver of a mechanical sweeper and it had no real suspension or exotic additions like air conditioning or four-wheel steer, but I was well aware of its abilities. The modern Swingos are a massive improvement - the drivers spend a full eight-hour shift, seven days a week in them and they need to be comfortable and safe."

The council carries out its own service and maintenance and has established a programme that maximises the vehicles' working down and minimises down time. Plant fitter Nick Bendall was one of three technicians who had a three-day training course conducted by Schmidt's engineering experts. He says: "We can keep the Swingos working to maximum efficiency as a result of our maintenance programme and we hold stocks of the most commonly used consumables."

Plymouth is a microcosm of street cleansing. Like many other cities, it has different people at different times and many create litter, but what makes Plymouth different is that as well as a large student and young people population, it also has a thriving tourism industry. With that in mind, the streets must be kept clean - it is a never-ending battle for the council and there is no time for a game of bowls on the Hoe before tackling the job.

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