Each spring, Bloomington residents pile mountains of sagging couches, old mattresses, broken lawn mowers and other refuse on the curb, watching with delight as the junk that gathered dust in basements and garages is hauled away.

It’s a city-run program called the Citywide Curbside Clean-Up, an annual bulk trash pickup with a history that stretches back five decades. For longtime residents like Barbara Even, it’s one of the best services offered by the city.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to get rid of a lot of things. I would be sad to see it go away.”

But the cleanup could go away. The last time the project was put up for bid, just one hauler wanted the job, which pays more than $500,000 to pick up bulky items in the city over five spring weekends. After next spring’s pickup, the future of the program is uncertain.

It’s not that trash haulers don’t want the business. In this high-tech age, many simply don’t have enough old-fashioned rear-load trucks to do the job.

This year, Crystal and New Hope had to cancel their fall large-item curbside pickup program when no haulers bid for the job.

“That contract is in excess of $200,000, so it is surprising that we cannot get contractors involved,” said Dan Ruiz, recycling coordinator for those cities. “One reason is the death of a dinosaur, the rear-loading garage truck.”

Allied Waste holds the 2014 Bloomington contract and has worked with the city on the program for several years. While many Allied employees are eager for the extra work, the company has to bring old-fashioned garbage trucks down from the St. Cloud area to have a fleet that can handle the job, said Rich Hirstein, Allied’s municipal services manager.

“Maybe 10 percent [of our trucks] are rear-load style,” he said. “It’s a labor-intensive job, and the world is becoming more automated.”

New trucks, less labor

In place of the traditional two-man garbage crew — one driving, the other riding on the back of the truck to jump off and empty the trash can into the back — new garbage trucks have one driver and a mechanical arm that reaches out to grab, empty and set down garbage bins. And with less physical labor involved, companies are less likely to have injured employees and worker compensation claims.

When Bloomington started its program in 1964, waste was simply taken to a landfill. Things are more complicated today. Allied uses a subcontractor with specialized trucks to pick up appliances. Scrap metal is collected separately, and most of the other trash goes to the Minneapolis ­garbage burner.

The bulk pickups, which are paid for as part of utility bills and generally collect $20 to $22 per household for collection, are hugely popular with residents. Ruiz said the events are a bargain when a homeowner might get charged $40 or $50 just to get rid of a couch.

Ruiz, acting director of public works for Brooklyn Park, said popular demand made that city switch from doing bulk pickups in one-fifth of the city each year to doing one-third of the city each year. He was able to find a hauler for Brooklyn Park.

“The more frequently you do it, the higher participation rate you have, because people get used to it,” he said. “It’s one of our highest customer services in terms of ratings, and we do get little old ladies sending in postcards to thank us.”

Pickup vs. drop-off

Bloomington’s curbside collection program, which began as a city fix-up and beautification effort in 1964, went on hiatus in 1981 and started again in 1998. This year, city maintenance superintendent Jim Eiler said, it collected 1,300 tons of miscellaneous garage, 20 tons of yard waste, one ton of scrap metal and 378 appliances. Eiler estimated that about half of the households in Bloomington participate.

Hints that there might be a problem getting the proper trucks for the program surfaced a few years ago. Eiler said the city isn’t excited about switching to the drop-off program run by many cities, where residents are invited to dump large items at a city site.

“We have an elderly population here, and it’s hard for them to find trucks and people to move that type of stuff,” he said. “Now, if they can get it to the curb, we can make it go away.”

Eiler and Hirstein said a new model of garbage truck with a big bucket at the front that can be filled, lifted over the cab and dumped in the back might be appropriate for bulk pickup programs. But additional labor would still have to be brought in to get big items into the buckets.

Ruiz is determined to continue the bulk trash pickup programs in his northern suburbs and is already sending e-mails to haulers to see if they could work with his cities.

“We are trying to do as much as we can to keep it going,” he said.

Pickup day is a big day

Nat Hudson, a Bloomington resident for more than 40 years, has used the annual cleanup to get rid of a grill and an old lawn mower, among other things. “Every year I put something out,” he said.

The pickup day is a bit of a novelty, he said, with junk scavengers swooping down streets in pickups to grab the best stuff and people watching for hauling crews to take their stuff away.

“It definitely would be inconvenient if it goes away,” Hudson said. “It would disappoint a lot of people.”