A Tribute to Sedona's Trash Collectors
Story and photos by Catherine J. Rourke
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted,
or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say: Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
- Martin Luther King Jr.
A sliver of light punctures the cold darkness as dawn breaks on a windy Monday across the Verde Valley. Employees of Waste Management Corporation rise in the wee hours and head to the landfill depot in Dewey, Ariz., no matter what the weather, with a singular determination: to sweep Sedona clear of its garbage.
In the quiet stillness, the hum of several 50,000-pound trash trucks shifting into high gear drowns out any birdsong along Cherry Road. It’s 6 a.m. and WMC’s battalion of dedicated men and women point their tanks toward Sedona’s red rocks to fight the war against dirt and detritus. On the city’s streets lie some 80 tons of ripe, rotting and bacteria-laden garbage, all awaiting removal.
Workers range in age from 30 to 55, and some have been on the job as long as 15 years. They clock in anywhere between 2 and 5:30 a.m., depending on their route. For the next 10 hours, they will hoist more than 136,000 staggering pounds of trash from Sedona residences and haul it back to the landfill before returning to their homes. None of them reside on any of the streets they are about to sweep clean.
No simple task
Riding around for just one hour with a trash collector in Sedona is a testament to the amazing feat they perform. Call it an art or maybe even a science. Either way, emptying the city’s countless residential trash carts and commercial Dumpsters is no simple task.
In 2004, WMC’s customers pitched approximately 58,000 tons of garbage, according to Rob Waskow, the company’s district manager. WMC is just one of several privately owned waste management companies hauling trash in the Verde Valley.
It takes a crew of approximately 20 workers just to handle Sedona’s waste, deploying eight residential trucks, four commercial haulers and two recycling vehicles. Drivers’ routes vary each and every day and exclude the disposal of medical and other hazardous waste.
Shake, rattle and roll
Think of the worst carnival ride imaginable and multiply it 10 times. That’s what it feels like it in the cab as trucks mercilessly lurch, shift, sputter, shake, rattle and shove everything inside, human or otherwise.
Drivers say they get used to the rumble of their Heil-type vehicles, which belch and heave like some mythical scavenger giant munching on a steady diet of tossed scraps. Appropriately called “the Python,” its levers grip carts and crush rubbish in the hopper. Primarily rolling compactors, trucks inch their way across the city like bottom feeders, with packing blades sweeping everything in their path.
In addition to their enormous weight, vehicles hold 16-20,000 pounds of garbage, or between 8 and 10 tons. Maneuvering the truck with precision takes surprising skill. Mastering the switches that control the truck’s “arm” and “gripper” requires great dexterity just to dump one can. Try doing this 800 or more times, neatly and swiftly, during a work shift that averages 10 or more hours a day.
Left brain, right brain
Stalwart, steadfast and courteous, driver Brandon Krueger’s been on the job for almost two years. He performs his task with the grace of a symphonic conductor, fingering the truck’s hydraulic buttons like a master pianist and maneuvering his vehicle with the masterful skill of a mighty ship captain. His movements are precise and almost poetic and his head turns continually as though engaged in a rhythmic dance.
A trash collector’s job isn’t merely physical. It demands constant mental focus, engaging both sides of the brain with an almost intuitive precision to align the vehicle’s arm with a trash receptacle. The daily route usually ranges between 500 and 700 scattered stops. Training is intensive, with new drivers following audio-taped directions to orchestrate their rounds.
“It takes a while to get the route down pat,” said Krueger, artfully dodging kids, cars and cats. “If you don’t know where you’re going, it can be pretty tough.”
The 31-year-old husband and father is well-acquainted with every crack of the Verde Valley’s streets and alleys. Always on the alert, he knows what narrow curves, menacing mailboxes and precarious power lines to watch out for.
“It’s obvious nobody was thinking about trash trucks and waste collection when they designed the city’s streets,” he noted. “It’s amazing where some houses are located.”
Drivers agree that Oak Creek Canyon poses the greatest challenges for waste collection with its tight, winding driveways. Such rural areas with dirt roads often become inaccessible in wet weather, trapping trash trucks in the mud.
Safety remains the highest priority on this job, and vehicles are equipped with a rear camera that allows drivers greater visibility, with a monitor right in the cab. Children playing on the street, cars backing out of driveways, poor visibility on winding streets and foul weather – all pose daily hazards for waste collection professionals.
“Our safety program remains our primary focus each and every day,” said Waskow. “During the recent floods, our crews faced many hazards but they made all their rounds. Nothing’s stopped us from collecting yet.”
According to collectors, the most common problem arises when customers dump loose garbage instead of bagging it as required.
“On a windy day, unbagged trash blows out of the hopper and down the street,” Krueger said. “Then they think it’s the company’s fault.”
Carts tip over; trash flies everywhere. If bagged, collectors are required to pick it up. Otherwise, they are unauthorized to gather loose waste for health reasons. Sorry, no chasing tin cans down the street.
Unbagged Styrofoam peanuts can explode in the hopper, littering Sedona’s pristine streets like confetti after a parade. Workers often have to get out of their vehicles more than 100 times to pick up fallen barrels and spilled rubbish, slowing down their collection time to a crawl.
“When the wind is blowing, that’s the worst time,” said Kevin Claywell, one of Sedona’s route managers. “Then people phone our call center and say that we are losing trash and it is blowing all over the place. So, if people understood that bagging their garbage would help prevent this, it would also help us keep our neighborhoods clean and looking nice.”
Pure trash, perfect service
Trash barrels are piled high this Monday. At one stop, the can is overflowing with beer cartons. Near another, the remains of a week’s worth of yard work sit on the ground. According to waste professionals, it’s “utterly amazing” what people throw away. Perfectly good food, unopened. Mattresses and microwaves. Fine wine never drunk before its time. Appliances in working order. Construction debris. The litter box contents, unbagged and stinking up the entire cart.
The truck’s compressor emits a horrible mechanical groan, followed by popping, sputtering and hissing sounds. It’s the symphony of large items busting apart as the giant packing blade crushes them, with no telling what might spit out of the hopper.
“We realize our customers can have extra rubbish now and then and we’re happy to take it for them,” Krueger said. “We do extra things as a courtesy even though we’re not required.”
In general, cans should be out by 6 a.m. Monday morning. If missing, drivers note the time they arrived, with a “CNO” designation (Cart Not Out) on their sheet. Sometimes customers claim the driver missed them. If so, the company must recover the waste that day. But if it was put out too late, a simple call admitting an oversight will prompt the company to do a courtesy pickup.
“We want to provide the best quality service,” said Claywell. “So the little things that people can help us out with are a big thing to us and make our job go a whole lot easier.”
Waste not, want not
What should residents do? For one, bag trash properly. Break down cartons. Put the barrels out on time, facing in the right direction. Don’t overload small cans. Call the company for excess pickup. And recycle whenever possible.
Waste professionals emphasize the critical need for residents to participate in local recycling efforts. In the near future, carts for recyclables will be made available for pickup.
“Everyone should go out and look at the landfill site,” said Krueger. “It’s mind-boggling how much trash the Verde Valley produces each day.”
The numbers tell all: Eight residential trucks service Sedona on Mondays, with each hauling approximately 10 tons of trash. That equals a staggering 136,000 pounds, or 80 tons, of waste every week – if they only haul one load a day.
Krueger estimates that last week he removed 13.9 tons of garbage from West Sedona in one day, emptying an average of 50 barrels per hour. There can be anywhere from 30 to 50 stops on a single street, depending on the housing density, and as many as 900 pickups on a route.
‘Tis the season
While residents welcome the onset of spring, those who haul rubbish for a living dread the annual cleaning of yard and garage. Common sights include uncut tree limbs and brush sticking out of trash barrels or lying on the ground. During the next several weeks, WMC’s collectors also will see broken furniture, soiled carpet and old appliances as residents jettison their basement junk.
"Oh yeah, we crushed all kinds of stuff today,” Krueger said. “We’re not supposed to take anything that won’t fit into the container. But people are pretty good for the most part.”
Still, spring can be worse than the holidays, when workers collect significantly more rubbish, including large cartons and Christmas trees. As people clean out their garages, some toss toxic materials, such as auto tires and paint containers, that can pollute the landfill, Krueger explained. And many residents overload their containers when they can simply call the company to request a free extra pickup three times per year.
Summer is no picnic either. Campgrounds in Oak Creek Canyon are often piled high with refuse, especially after long holiday weekends. In general, there’s substantially more garbage after the major holidays, drivers noted.
“Most of our areas are tourist-based, and the holidays pose a tremendous load,” Waskow said. “People wouldn’t believe how much waste Uptown produces, especially after a busy weekend. It’s incredible.”
No glamour, no glory
Collecting the garbage isn’t a cushy job – but not for the obvious reasons.
“Believe it or not, sitting all day is the hardest part of the job,” said Krueger with a laugh. “It’s a rough ride. It’s hard on your back; it’s hard on your shoulders. Your neck gets real tight because you’re constantly looking behind you as you empty the trash in the hopper. The eyes get fatigued from driving and checking route sheets for 10 hours.”
While the work may not look as hard as that of yesteryear’s trash collector, who rode the rear fender hoisting heavy metal cans, it still poses many risks and challenges. It’s tough enough getting in and out of a vehicle that sits high above the pavement with heavy metal doors. The truck constantly rattles the driver, akin to being inside a perpetually whirling blender. Dangerous items spit out of the hopper. And few workers ever receive recognition for their labor.
“People don’t realize how hard we work,” Krueger said. “Most are pretty friendly but some turn their nose up at you because you’re the garbage man.”
What do collectors like most about their work?
“The contribution to the environment is our greatest reward,” Krueger said. “If it weren’t for us, the city would be one big stinking pile of bacteria. Plus I enjoy being outside instead of stuck in an office. I get to drive around the most beautiful areas.”
Undeniably, there’s a certain freedom to the job: collectors have no boss breathing down their backs and there’s plenty of time to engage in their own thoughts. Nationally, the average median wage for waste collectors is $12.97 per hour. At WMC, many workers surpass that, and with work weeks averaging more than 50 hours, they can count on overtime to buffer their paychecks.
Trash or treasure?
By 3:30 p.m., trash trucks dot I-17’s right lane, headed back to the Gray Wolf Regional Landfill in Dewey to empty their loads. On any given day, more than 250 tons of waste from the Verde Valley is buried at the site in a mounting stack.
Imagine it: Every discarded carton and crunched can, every uneaten crust and kitchen scrap, every conceivable throwaway and tossed tube, plus every disposable diaper, lighter and camera from countless residents and tourists – all this and more lies in that pile, a future archaeologist’s treasure trove. For now, it’s a heaping mountain of toxic techno junk that includes aluminum cans, six-pack wrappers, Styrofoam cups and plastic bags – and heaven knows what else – much of which could have been recycled.
After almost 10 hours on the job, collectors face the enviable task of cleaning out the blades of their trucks. What do they find back there – treasure or just plain trash? Let the imagination run wild: sharp, shocking and sometimes explosive objects and a stench that’s indescribable on scalding summer days.
It’s 4:30 p.m. and Krueger is ready for a hot shower. His neck throbs from craning back repeatedly toward his truck’s rear window. Yet he and his colleagues do it willingly, day after day, taking pride in keeping the community clean.
“Without the service that trash collectors provide to Sedona, the tourists wouldn’t want to come here,” Waskow said. “We’d be in a real mess in a big hurry.”
Apparently, pink slips pose no threat for these guys; job security remains as solid and predictable as the very waste they haul. In fact, for many, it represents a vocation they can retire from. The valley’s ever-increasing supply of garbage will certainly guarantee their pensions.
Steeped in a stinky job rarely associated with heroics, trash collectors seem nonplussed with the way their service is taken for granted. Yet perhaps they are among the workers who truly deserve the cookies and envelopes of appreciation on the holidays. These men and women are professionals in every way no less than other trades. So why should the term be reserved for white-collar workers who tap keys in air-conditioned offices? Professional encompasses every occupation that requires dedicated skill, sweat and service.
Give your local waste professionals an enthusiastic wave when they drive by. They deserve the utmost respect and commendation for their contribution to humanity. Just because they collect garbage doesn’t mean we should equate them with it. They have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be immensely proud of. And our community is proud and appreciative of them.
Catherine Rourke is a public service journalist who writes about socioeconomic and work-life balance issues. In 2006 her columns won the state’s most distinguished press recognition - a “Community Journalist of the Year Award” – from the Arizona Press Club.
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COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE
Trash collecting as an art form? How refreshing a concept! And YOU have taken journalism to a higher art form. Not only is the writing superb and brilliantly interesting on such a mundane subject but you have given Sedona a welcome break from the all the crap we read in the news every day. I would rather read about Brandon than Brad Pitt! This is such an inspiring story about everyday people, so beautifully and poetically executed. I can only wonder what you would write about loftier sujbects if you can write so lyrically about our garbage. Wow! This is everything that our media ought to be and you should have Brandon pick up all the fish wrap they call newsprint in this town and take it with him on his way to the dump.
I had no idea what it takes to get rid of our city's garbage and the enormous work these guys do every week. Our city would be lost without them and your article certainly gives them the credit they deserve. I have a new appreciation and awareness for our waste management people -- and for reporters like you who put them in the limelight. Nice work!
Well I never looked at my job as an "art" the way you describe it! You have elevated our work and guys like me to that of a superstar after we have been very looked down upon. But since the article came out, people are waving as I drive by and some are even running out to give me cookies. I placed a copy of your story beside the trash containers of the people who were chroncially overloading them and now they are being more considerate. Thank you for spotlighting the work we do. The article is helping to make our tough jobs every little bit easier.
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