Several months ago, a friend, noting my curious hobby of collecting trash that I find intriguing, joked that I should be a professional garbage collector. The suggestion stuck with me and sparked an interest in my own waste habits and in the general process of collecting and handling waste.
I decided to find out exactly where our waste goes and how it gets there. With the help of City Sanitation Supervisor Rick Dudgeon, I went on two ride-alongs: one with Mike Jackson, a commercial collector for 20 years who now operates a green waste truck, and Howard Pettyjohn, who primarily collects residential garbage.
The day of a refuse collector starts at 7 a.m. when he (in Walla Walla, all 12 collectors are male) sets out on his route. Refuse collectors tend to focus on one area, but most have been cross-trained so they can cover for one another should an employee miss a day.
t;p>All of the city's residential trucks are "rapid rails" or "side-loaders," which have a three-foot-wide arm that is operated with a joystick to grab trash containers. The collector can watch the waste get dumped in to the truck's tank with the help of a monitor above the rear-view mirror. When a container's contents are being dumped into the truck, the vehicle shakes from side to side like a carnival ride. Every few bins, a compacter packs down all the waste.
Thirty years ago, refuse collection was an intensely physical job, as the collectors had to lift and dump the containers manually at each stop. Now, with nearly all the trucks automatic, residential collection is largely a sedentary task, and sanitation officers generally get out of the truck only to move the occasional hard-to-reach bin.
I first rode with Jackson on his green waste route. Though green waste bins are supplied only by subscription, not all subscribers put out their bins. Thus, Jackson's morning involved a lot of looping around streets without much stopping. As a bystander, it seemed somewhat aimless, but Jackson assured me collectors work out their routes to be as efficient as possible, considering they can pick up only on one side of the street at a time.
Jackson said he misses the social interaction that went along with commercial collecting, but he enjoys the green waste route. As someone who sees the landfill every work day of the week, he gets a kind of pleasure from collecting compostables.
"Anything we can keep out of the landfill is good -- the green waste keeps it out," Jackson said.
The green waste has a comparatively pleasant and earthy scent, but Jackson recalled from his years of commercial collection that trash can be rather unsavory, particularly in the summer.
"I always tell people it smells like money, but it doesn't," he said.
There is a certain level of invisibility in being a sanitation officer; residents hear the garbage trucks and know they come weekly, but the lack of contact with the collectors means few people actually consider the person inside of the truck. Jackson echoed this sentiment.
"I don't think people think about us until we miss their garbage," he said.
Pettyjohn, however, had a different take on his job, and said the interactions he does have with customers make his job enjoyable.
"The thing I like the most is trying to have good customer service. It's an opportunity to meet different people," he said.
Jackson and Pettyjohn mentioned one of the best parts of collection is the reaction kids have to the truck.
"Little kids are just excited about garbage trucks ... give them a little honk and it makes their day," Pettyjohn said.
In refuse collection, most days are like the one before. But there are occasional exciting circumstances. Jackson recalled that several years ago on the commercial route, he found a puppy in one of the bins.
"The day we found him I said, 'You should call him Lucky.' How he got out, I don't know," Jackson said.
As the truck bumped along, I began to think about how if this were my job, I would most likely develop opinions about people based on their garbage. I brought this up to Pettyjohn and Jackson, but neither seemed to be bothered by their customer's habits.
"It's not right to judge people ... we are here to be helpful and to serve," Pettyjohn said.
Of course, there are certain practices that make the daily tasks of refuse collectors more difficult. The first is an overfilled bin, as any spilled garbage must be picked up by hand. The second is bins placed too close together, which can make them hard to grab with the mechanical arm. The third problem is bins that are too close to a stationary object, such as a tree or car.
On the ride-along, the arm on one of the trucks knocked a small branch off of a tree that was directly above a bin; if you value your landscaping, keep your garbage bin away from it.
When the truck gets full, it's time to drive to the dump, a few miles west of town. The site features not only a landfill, but an apparent hill that is actually a trash pile covered in dirt, dubbed "Mount Rakestraw" after the supervisor of the site.
Jackson's green waste went into a massive compost heap, which was populated by robins and other cheerful birds and not even remotely off-putting.
Pettyjohn's 17,280 pounds of trash was unloaded into the landfill, a crater-like desert of garbage that made disturbingly clear just how many plastic bags get thrown away.
For the most part, residential collection is an exercise in repetition (drive, stop, pick up, dump, repeat). While it can be monotonous, the upside to the repetition is it can serve as a reminder of job security in a time when so many have lost their jobs. The consistency with which people produce trash can be a reassurance.
"There's always going to be garbage, and we're a big money maker for the city. There's not any way they're gonna do without us ... it's reassuring to know somebody's going to have to deal with this stuff," Jackson said.