By Elland Road Partners*
There are more than 116,000 garbage collectors in the United States, which sounds like a lot until you consider the staggering volume of trash Americans toss out every year: 250 million tons (and growing). And yet, these intrepid men and women are shrouded in mystery. Maybe that's because we only think of them when running to the curb in our undies at 6 a.m. or when stuck behind a truck on our way to Costco.
Well, let ignorance go the way of open-air incinerators. To help clear the mystery surrounding the only people who—unlike mom—will keep cleaning up after you for the rest of your life, we interviewed dozens of garbage collectors around the country about their work, motivation, and, yes, that smell. Here's what we learned:
1. It's OK to call us garbage men.
Politically correct terms are "sanitation engineer" and “waste management professional,” but if you ask the men and women who actually do the work there’s nothing to be ashamed of in a description that’s less euphemistic. Veteran "engineer" Scott Fultz, of Portland, Oregon, speaks for most of his peers when he says that the classic moniker is still the best. “Just call me the garbage man," he implores. "I’m the guy that picks up your sewage. I’m the guy driving the big green truck." Trash collector, trash hauler and, across the pond, “bin men” are also acceptable. (So is their actual name.)
2. Or garbage women.
About 99% of U.S. garbage collectors are men, but that still means that more than 1,000 women are out there hauling trash. And all the garbage women we interviewed say they encounter real surprise when they share their vocational choice. Not that such reactions deter them. "I wear it like a badge of honor," says veteran Memphis collector Kim Hardeman. "I’m a garbage woman, and I love it. I’m outdoors all day. And I don’t have to worry about the garbage can talking back to me." And while female collectors may not match their male counterparts when it comes to strength in numbers, they often have a stronger stomach. Says Baltimore garbage woman Kristen Anderson, "If you could see these grown men going crazy when things get gross…"
3. These are not jobs for the faint-hearted.
Trash collecting routinely shows up on lists of the most dangerous jobs in America, with roughly 30 fatalities per 100,000 workers annually. (Logging, the most dangerous profession, averages nearly 60 deaths per 100,000.) Small wonder: Every aspect of a trash collector's job has the capacity to injure. From heavy lifting to man-eating gears to glass and needles hidden in black garbage bags, disaster is never far away. “The toughest job is the position on the back,” says Dallas trash collector Jimmy Johnson. “Mostly because you’re jumping on and off the truck.”
But the most common accident is sadly preventable: collectors getting hit by cars. "It’s a very dangerous job," says Orlando garbage man Edwin Hernandez. "A lot of us get hurt. A driver is flying around a curve and doesn’t see the garbage man—or the truck—and ..." Part of the solution might just be a change in attitude. "Some people do not see you," says Joe Udice, a trash collector in the suburbs of New York City. "It’s a mentality: The garbage truck is there, but it’s not really there. Everyone is in a rush. Everyone’s the most important person."
4. These are also not jobs for the faint-nosed.
It may be the No. 1 reason more people don't get into garbage collection as a career: that unholy odor, impossible to parse but instantly recognizable. "It all combines into one sour swill," explains Udice. But after a while, you just stop noticing. "On the way home I might pick up a friend and he’ll be like, 'Joe, you stink!' And I can’t even notice it." Odor is only one part of an overall gross-out factor that quickly and brutally weeds out the weaklings from the rest of the herd. Minneapolis garbage man Al Gruidl says, "Our running joke—after we dump the garbage from the truck and it’s just water and maggots sloshing around—is to see if you can say, 'Mmmm, looks like great soup!'” Not everyone can. “One summer, a new guy was standing there just puking his guts out. We always have fun with the new guys."
5. This is not your father’s garbage man’s truck.
For many sewage picker-uppers, the days of lifting overstuffed cans by hand are over. “In Phoenix, all the trash collectors are drivers,” says Valley of the Sun veteran Tim Femrite. “Everything’s automated. We call it curbside pickup, where we drive up next to the bins, pick them up and dump them in. So it’s just me in the truck. It could get lonely for some people, but I like it. It’s my office.”
Even in places where the sanitation department and citizenry are less in-tune, today’s trucks are often high-tech wonders equipped with motion-activated cameras (for avoiding unseen hazards) and onboard tablets that help drivers track houses that have missed collection. "I’ve had a customer that I need to go back for because they didn’t have their stuff out in the morning," says Fultz, the Portland collector. "I can get that info in real time, whip right back around the corner, get it picked up and not have to worry about the phone calls." Trash haulers can also flag residents for particularly poor garbage etiquette, like overfilling cans. (“We call it ‘snow-coning,’” says Femrite.) You know who you are—and they do, too.
6. Your trash is our treasure.
You know that flat screen you dumped because it was last year's model? Or that bike your child begged for and never rode? You might have thought those were destined for the compactor, but garbage folk often find new homes for the unloved but usable goods we toss. "A lot of people throw out vacuum cleaners that are really just clogged," Udice explains. Those get a good cleaning and are put to use again. Lamps get fixed and recycled. Old TVs are taken back to headquarters, tested and then installed somewhere else. Just because you don’t have use for it doesn’t mean someone else won’t.
7. Your trash is our titillation.
Most trashcans are filled with the humdrum detritus of day-to-day living: spoiled food, broken appliances, waxen Q-tips, and threadbare underpants. But every so often— a.k.a. pretty much every day—there’s a titillating surprise for the guys and gals who dispose of your rubbish. "Pornography," says Udice. “A lot of pornography.” And while some may be shocked that anyone still buys X-rated magazines and videos, Udice is mostly amazed at the volume. "Never just a couple of magazines,” he says. “It’s always like someone just threw out their trove."
8. Your trash is you!
Minnesotan Gruidl recalls, "At the facility where we dump our garbage, one of the trucks, a front-end loader that picks up private dumpsters, was getting ready to offload. Somebody must have jumped in the dumpster that night to stay warm. They dumped it, and there he was down in the pit. The entire operation stopped. The guy was rolling around in there."
9. It’s the bag, stupid.
The next time you're shopping for trash bags, take a moment to consider all the stakeholders. Cheap bags are cheap for a reason, and when they fail it’s your garbage collector who will pay the price. "Guys throw bags into the truck and the garbage busts right out of the bag,” says Terrell Thompson, a trash collector in Kansas City, Missouri. “If they’ve been cleaning out the yard where their dog was, well…" And Thompson wants you to know that it’s not just about the quality of the bag. “On a hot day,” he explains, “bag material will thin.” In other words, people: Don't be afraid to double-bag it in the summer.
10. It’s a jungle out there.
"We run into animals all the time," says Gruidl. And not just raccoons. "Squirrels have a way of chewing through the lids and getting in and out of the garbage,” he says. “So when you dump it into the hopper, the squirrels fly out and scare the living daylights out of you." Kristen Anderson, a Baltimore garbage woman, had a slightly closer encounter: "I opened a can, and I felt something go up my arm. The guy I was working with jumped back and yelled, 'Did you see that?!' It was a rat, and it ran right up my arm. I didn’t notice till it jumped off. I was glad. I might have quit my job right there."
11. We hate autumn.
Summer, with its bag-thinning and trash-ripening heat, isn't easy on garbage folk. And winter's snow banks are certainly a pain (even if the smell lessens). But the real nightmare season? When the leaves start falling. "Memphis in the fall," says veteran Bluff City collector Kim Hardeman, "The piles—oh my goodness, it’s overwhelming.”
12. We’re generally pretty flexible.
In San Francisco, where Mario Montoya has spent 27 years hauling trash, the Public Works Department "does it all." That not only means emptying cans, but also cleaning out illegal waste dumps and cleaning up after car accidents and fires—even scrubbing down biological waste on the street. And yes, the job can get frustrating, but for Montoya and many of his peers there’s a pervasive sense of pride in their work. "We all grew up in this city," he says, "and we’re proud of that. My dad used to say, 'Whatever you do, whether you’re flipping burgers or flipping dollars, take pride in what you do.' I think that’s very important, especially in this job."
13. And sometimes we’re very flexible.
Joe Udice has a story for you. “There’s a lot of nice areas in Westchester," he says. "You wouldn’t think sanitation workers would really hook up on route because they smell, but there’s this wealthy divorcee who kept joking with one guy on a three-man crew. So eventually he says to one of the other guys, ‘Do you think you could cover my route for like a half hour?” And the other guy is like, ‘Are you kidding?’ And the first guy says, ‘I’m gonna try.’ He hit the lottery with that one. The guy has skills.”
14. These are not jobs of last resort.
"As a kid I always wanted to be a garbage man,” says Orlando garbage man Edwin Hernandez. “I used to live in the projects, and the garbage men had to come to the back of the house, grab the cans and pull them all the way around the house. I liked helping them. This guy, he was probably about 18 years old. He worked on the garbage truck. His name was Lester. And I followed that garbage truck everywhere it went. So that’s one of the things that inspired me. I always wanted to do it.”
* Elland Road Partners is a content collaborative founded by Gary Belsky and Neil Fine. Kevin J. Ryan and Deanna Cioppa contributed to this story.