Over 116,000 garbage collectors work in the United States, which may seem like a lot until you consider the massive quantity of garbage Americans toss away each year: 250 million tonnes. However, these brave men and women are shrouded in darkness. Maybe it’s because we don’t think about them until 6 a.m. When we were in our underwear sprinting to the curb or stuck behind a truck on our way to Costco.
We spoke with dozens of garbage collectors from throughout the country about their employment, motives, and, yes, that odor, to throw some light on the mystery surrounding the only people who will pick up after you for the rest of your life. Here’s what we found out:
It’s fine to refer to us as garbage men:
“Sanitation engineer” and “waste management professional” are politically acceptable terms, but if you ask the men and women who do the work, choosing a less artificial phrase isn’t a problem. When veteran “engineer” Scott Fultz working in Vallejo garbage service argues that the original moniker is still the finest, he speaks for the majority of his peers. He implores, “Just call me the garbage man.” “I’m the man who collects your trash.” “I’m the guy behind the wheel of the huge green truck.”
This is not an easy job:
Every part of a garbage collector’s job has the potential to cause injury. From hard lifting to man-eating gears to glass and needles hidden in black waste bags, the danger is never far away. According to Dallas trash collector Jimmy Johnson, “the toughest job is the position on the back.” “It’s really due to the fact that you’re hopping on and off the truck.”
These are also not jobs for faint-nosed.
The ugly odor, impossible to parse but easily recognizable, maybe the No. 1 reason more people don’t go into garbage collection as a career. “It all integrates into one sour swill,” explains Udice. However, after a while, you simply stop noticing it. Odour is merely one component of a larger gross-out factor that weeds out the weaklings from the rest of the herd quickly and harshly.
Your garbage is our treasure.
The unloved but usable items we throw frequently find new homes with garbage collectors. “A lot of people throw out vacuum cleaners that are just blocked up,” explains Udice. Those are cleaned and placed back into service. Lamps are repaired and then recycled. Old televisions are returned to headquarters, tested, and then relocated. Just because you don’t think it’ll be useful to you doesn’t mean it won’t be useful to someone else.
Your garbage is titillation for us.
Most trashcans are clogged with the dreck of everyday life: rotting food, broken appliances, waxed Q-tips, and threadbare underwear. However, the guys and gals who collect your trash are occasionally treated to a tantalizing surprise.
Your trash is you.
Gruidl, a Minnesotan, says, “One of the vehicles, a front-end loader that collects private dumpsters, was getting prepared to unload at the facility where we dump our waste. Someone had to have jumped in the dumpster to remain warm that night. He was below in the pit when they dumped it. The entire process came to a halt. In there, the person was rolling about.”
It’s a jungle out there.
“We come across animals all the time,” Gruidl explains. Raccoons aren’t the only ones. “”Squirrels have a way of eating through lids and getting into and out of the rubbish,” he explains. “So the squirrels fly out and scare the living daylights out of you as you drop it into the hopper.”
We hate autumn.
Summer is tough on garbage collectors, with its bag-thinning and trash-ripening heat. Winter’s snow banks are also a nuisance (even if the smell lessens). But what about the true nightmare season? When the leaves begin to fall. “The piles—oh my goodness, it’s unbelievable,” recalls veteran Bluff City collector Kim Hardeman of Memphis in the fall.
We’re pretty flexible in general.
The Public Works Department in San Francisco, where Mario Montoya has spent 27 years hauling trash, “does it all.” This includes not only emptying trash cans, but also cleaning up after automobile accidents and fires, as well as wiping off biological waste on the roadway. Yes, the job can be frustrating at times, but Montoya and many of his peers take pride in their work.
These are not jobs of last resort.
Edwin Hernandez, an New York garbage worker, says, “As a kid, I always wanted to be a garbage man.” “When I lived in the projects, garbage collectors had to come to the rear of the house, take the cans, and drag them all the way around the house.” I enjoyed assisting them.
Today, a host of companies, such as 3 Kings Hauling and have employed such dedicated individuals. So, treat them with respect and compassion the next time you call them to haul heavy stuff or trash from your home.