Those who think that plastic front-end load containers (FELs) are not for them should think again. Recent changes in design and manufacturing processes have made plastic FELs more durable than and cost-competitive with traditional steel models. When selecting an FEL, it is important to understand the major advantages of plastic over steel in terms of sustainability, ease of use and total cost of ownership.
While there are still some persistent misconceptions about plastic FELs, they have come a long way in a relatively short time on the market, with top brands engineered to have a service life of up to three times greater than that of steel, at roughly the same price point.
How do you know if plastic or steel is right for you, and which models and features work best? After consulting with countless haulers who have chosen to make the switch from steel to plastic, here is the following guidance on choosing the best FEL for your specific needs.
The stackable design of plastic FELs makes shipping easy with better truckload efficiency.
Steel Versus Plastic
Steel FELs have been ever-present in the waste industry for many years. They are strong and sturdy, cost-conscious and can be relatively easily welded or repaired. On the other hand, these units are extremely heavy, difficult to maneuver, prone to rusting, require frequent repair/maintenance and can present safety and environmental concerns.
While steel products are preferred in high-capacity and heavy-weight applications, (typically greater than 4,000 lbs.), plastic FELs are a better choice in situations where there is/are:
- Exposure to extreme weather conditions—Steel rusts and corrodes, but plastic does not. Plastic FELs will stand up to extreme weather and climate conditions, including rain and salt air, which can cause major problems with steel products and require frequent repair and replacement. In fact, plastic FELs are often the product of choice in coastal areas for this very reason.
- Desire for minimal maintenance and upkeep—Because plastic is not susceptible to rusting and corrosion, it requires nearly no maintenance or repair over its lifecycle. This stands in stark contrast to steel products, which require frequent welding and replacement of component parts, costing haulers time and money and requiring them to take equipment out of service to complete needed repairs. Also, because they will not dent or ding, plastic FELs present a good option for frequent and tough use. The truth is that, if used in the right applications and not overloaded, plastic containers are virtually maintenance-free.
- Regulatory requirements are in place—Many municipalities and states have laws related to eliminating water run-off from rusting units that could leach into the water table. Many others have mandatory organics collection requirements that make plastic FELs that will not corrode due to wet waste, which is a much more attractive option for haulers. While California leads the way in this area with steep penalties for run-off and regulations like AB 1826, which requires any facility that generates more than 4-cubic yards of trash per week to have organics diversion and collection, other areas have begun to follow suit. Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA), environmental and waste regulations all seem to be converging to make plastic a more attractive, longer-term compliance option.
- Quiet operation is important—Whether there is a noise ordinance in place or simply a desire to reduce noise in places like apartment complexes or residential areas, as well as schools, churches and hotels, plastic FELs are much quieter than steel FELs. When lifting, opening and closing a plastic FEL, it makes far less noise than the clanging and banging of metal forks on metal FEL pockets and slamming metal lids, especially during early morning pickups.
- Space is limited and mobility is important—Plastic FELs come in a variety of sizes that can fit into smaller spaces and are much lighter in weight. For example, a 3-cubic yard plastic bin weighs roughly 280 pounds, whereas a steel one weighs approximately 600, and is far easier to move to allow for placement in alleyways, garages and/or places where dumpsters cannot be easily accessed and require moving for collection.
- Safety is paramount—Despite efforts aimed at improving safety, the waste and recycling industry is ranked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as the fifth most dangerous occupation in the U.S. From rare fatalities and more serious accidents to extremely common slip and fall and repetitive stress injuries, haulers and businesses alike are well aware of the possibility and cost of workplace injuries related to loading and dumping waste. Lighter-weight, more easily maneuverable plastic FELs with hinged lids present a major opportunity for injury risk mitigation, reducing liability and costly workers’ compensation claims while improving employee satisfaction.
- A significant amount of organic or wet waste is generated—Organics collection is growing very rapidly, but steel dumpsters are not designed to handle wet organic waste. This type of waste will cause them to wear quickly and rust out, requiring frequent repair and replacement. Rust- and maintenance-free plastic is a much better option for anything but the heaviest of organics loads.
- Smell is a concern—Unlike steel, which is difficult to clean, plastic containers can be easily hosed down and cleaned, reducing unpleasant odors as well as the risk of attracting pests, like rats and roaches.
Plastic FELs can withstand extreme weather and climate conditions as compared to steel FELS that can rust and corrode over time.
Top 10 Considerations for Evaluating Plastic Options
While plastic makes sense in a lot of situations, not all plastic containers, dumpsters and FELs are created equal. To ensure durability and longevity, here is a list of 10 critical questions to ask when evaluating this type of equipment for a possible purchase:
1. What is the strength-to-weight ratio? The durability of the plastic itself makes all the difference in the performance and service life of a plastic FEL. Look for a high strength-to-weight ratio and avoid injection-molded plastics that tend to be more rigid and prone to breakage in favor of more durable roto-molded options.
2. Does it contain any metal parts? Remember that one of the primary advantages of a plastic container is that it will not corrode or rust. Any exposed metal components, including screws and handles, can defeat that purpose and make the container susceptible to deterioration. Look for containers which contain no exposed metal screws or hinges and have internal/contained metal reinforcements. Having a smooth, screw- and seam-free interior will not only prevent rusting but will also ensure easy cleaning.
3. Does it come in a size that works for me? Some manufacturers take a one-size fits all approach to containers, while others offer a wide range of sizes to meet more specialized needs. Select 1-, 2-, 3- or 4-cubic yard models that fit the amount of trash generated, the footprint available for the container and the frequency of pickup, making collection more convenient and efficient for all involved.
4. What is the load rating? Look for containers that meet ANSI standards, paying careful attention to the load rating. It is important to avoid overloading the containers to avoid possible damage and workplace injuries.
5. Is it reinforced in key areas? FELs must stand up to tough use, and key areas, such as bottoms, fork pockets, handles and rims, can wear out quickly if not properly reinforced.
6. Are parts easily repaired and replaced? While plastic is extremely durable, parts can be damaged from time to time. With that in mind, it is important to work with a manufacturer who can replace parts such as fork pockets, lids and casters as needed and offers an easy way to order these spare parts.
7. Does the company stand by its products? Nothing speaks to product quality and manufacturing reliability better than a warranty, so opt for a partner who guarantees the container for at least a couple of years.
8. Are they easy to store? Haulers of all sizes should consider how easily these FELs can be hauled and stored. Large haulers will need to keep extras on hand as needed, while smaller haulers may have a smaller storage yard. In either case, having equipment that is stackable can make for much more efficient transporting and storage.
9. Does it offer the options I need? This may be the most critical question of all, as there is a broad range of options available through FEL manufacturers. Considerations include locks (like lock bars or gravity locks) for security and odor/leak control, handles, bumpers, casters, leak-proof drain plugs and flat-fronts to allow for post-mold graphics and branding.
10. Does the vendor have a history of performance? There are a lot of products on the market, many of which have not been in service for very long. It is always a safe bet to work with a vendor and brand that has a solid reputation in the market and who can demonstrate a history of product longevity. Ask for references, seek recommendations from fellow haulers and shop around.
A Careful Examination
With all this in mind, it is clear that plastic FELs and dumpsters are certainly worth a second or even a third look for those who have been on the fence. Having a thorough understanding of how and where the equipment will be used is central in determining whether steel or plastic FELs and dumpsters are right for you, but the wide variety of vendors and options now available in plastic will require a discerning eye and a careful examination of key factors.
Pedrito Gella is the Western Division Sales Director for Toter, a brand of Wastequip (Charlotte, NC). During his 10 years of experience, Pedrito has worked as the Regional Sales Manager and Team Leader for Toter, Territory Manager for Waste Management, Recycling Specialist for Waste Management and most previously, as the Major Accounts Representative for Waste Management, focusing on developing organics diversion programs for major organizations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on what to look for in an FEL, visit www.toter.com/about-us/contact-us.