The story originally appears in the July 16, 2020 print edition of Smart Reader
Just how important is garbage pickup? If you have your doubts just ask any alderman who has had a constituent that feels he or she isn’t getting the service they think they deserve. For the past four years the task of keeping the City of Kenosha clean has been on the shoulders of Keir Powell. Since 2016, as Superintendent of Solid Waste Management for the city, Powell has overseen what can be a complicated balancing act.
However in the past year Powell’s life has become far more complicated as his department makes the transition from manual to automated pickup with the utilization of rolling carts. Adding further complication to this work intensive changeover has been COVID-19. During the shelter at home period, residents took some of their new found time to clean out their basements and garages. Consequently, it resulted in a amazing increase of over 1,151 tons in additional curbside garbage, something that was handled with no increase in staffing. Also during this pandemic Powell has had to deal with staffing and logistical issues in order to keep his crews safe and still maintain pick up schedules.
We recently reached out to Keir and asked him to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions. He graciously said yes.
Have you always called Kenosha home?
I was born in Iowa and moved with my family to Kenosha when I was five years old. I consider Kenosha my hometown.
What local schools did you attend?
I attended Roosevelt Elementary through the fifth grade. My family moved, so I finished elementary school at Pleasant Prairie. I then attended Bullen and graduated from Tremper.
After graduating from Carthage College with a BA in Geography, what was your next move?
During my senior year, I had an internship with the Department of City Development. After graduation, I was hired with the Kenosha Housing Authority. Just before the birth of our first child, I transferred to the Waste Division.
After five years in that position, you transferred over to the waste division as a waste collector. As a college graduate were there any raised eyebrows regarding your next career choice?
Yes, family members were skeptical about my choice, but I felt it was a great career move. Being outdoors, working hard, and providing an important service gave me a daily sense of accomplishment and pride.
What would you say is one of the biggest misconceptions regarding the job?
The biggest misconception is the fact that there are only nine waste collectors and four recyclers for the entire city. It’s an easy description but a complicated job.
Throwing garbage or picking up recycling is obviously physical, yet it requires forethought and planning to do the job efficiently. Every waste collector has an intimate knowledge of the layout of the city. Kenosha does not charge for bulk collection or for electronic and tire recycling, yet most municipalities do.
Have there been any significant changes to this job since you began in 1996?
Sadly, no. We have picked up garbage the same way since 1978 when curbside collection began. The most significant change for the department was losing three full-time collectors despite the growth of the city.
Would you say that waste collection is a young man’s job?
Currently, it is. With the change to automation, however, a more diverse selection of employees becomes possible.
It appears that Kenosha is the last major municipality in Wisconsin to make the changeover to carts, why now?
The continued growth of the city requires a different method of service. Manual collection can not be sustained without significantly adding costs for increasing staff and work-related injuries. With automated collection, we become a modern city.
What about on-the-job injuries, how costly are Workman’s Compenstaion claims for the city?
Over the last five years, the Waste Division has averaged over $200,000 in medical bills. This does not include lost time and added risk due to increased workload.
With cart automation, injuries will decline but what are some of the other benefits for Kenoshans?
The esthetic value has already been noticeable. The early roll-out areas look more professional and clean because all trash need to be contained in the carts. We won’t see loose bags lying curbside. In addition, animals can no longer access the garbage, creating a healthier environment for citizens. Finally, the size of the carts may reduce the frequency of taking garbage and/or recycling to the curb.
With COVID-19 in the mix could this cart rollout come at a worse time?
It’s definitely been challenging. I wish we could have completed all of the public meetings that we had planned to address citizen’s questions and concerns. That is my biggest frustration with COVID and the roll-out.
What measures have you taken to limit your employees’ exposure to the coronavirus?
We do our best to follow CDC guidelines. You may see a pickup truck following the bulk truck so that employees can social distance. Even with the measures we take, because we are frontline workers, exposure to COVID is always present.
Now that residents are beginning to see carts appearing in front of their homes, what has been some of the Initial feedback you have received?
There has been a positive response. As we move forward, I believe all residents will appreciate the benefits of this system.
Every residence will receive two carts, with one earmarked for recyclables, how important is it for the community to embrace recycling?
It is very important. Any material we can divert to the landfill gives that landfill a longer life.
When it comes to recycling is there any industry-wide numbers available that would give us an idea as to how we compare to other communities? Do you have a goal or number in mind that you would like to see Kenosha at say a year from now?
Currently, Kenosha’s diversion rate (recycling compared to waste) is 16%. With the automated collection system, I’m optimistic that the city’s rate can increase to at least 30%.
If anyone happens to have a question what is the best way to get answers?
Visit kenosha.org and click the AUTOMATED WASTE COLLECTION link.
Any vacation plans for you and your family after this project is behind you?
I can’t think that far ahead right now. I’m consumed with making this a success.
Tune in to Happenings Q&A/AM1050 WLIP on Friday, July 31st at 2:30 when Keir Powell joins the conversation to answer more of our questions.
Interview by Frank Carmichael
Photos by Donald Stancato