This story is garbage, or will be, once you wrap it around what’s left of a salmon dinner and drop it in the can. That’s because Webster’s defines garbage as 1.) “offal; the refuse animal or vegetable matter of a kitchen or market,” and 2.) “anything worthless or offensive,” which some newspaper articles certainly are.
As part of the ongoing series “A day in the life of,” the Key Peninsula News struck a conversation with a young man named Matt Buckler to get a data dump on dumps. He’s young, clean cut, and, if the American Disposal Co. had recruiting posters, he’d be on them. His official title is that of “Refuse Collector,” although Buckler has no objection to the more traditional “Garbage Man,” and he’s been on the job for nearly two years now.
When asked to talk about the worst thing associated with his job, the answer comes quickly. “Definitely the dogs!” Buckler says. “A lot of people leave their dogs unleashed. If you look at our trucks, you’ll see that we have baseball bats on both sides. Sometimes, if we think we might get bitten, we don’t get off the truck. The key is to empty the can before they have time to run up.”
As for other problems, Buckler admits that “the smell gets pretty bad in the summer, plus our trucks stir up a lot of dust. Actually out here a lot of people go on vacation in the winter. I finish my route an hour and 15 minutes earlier in the winter than in summer. That’s because more people are here, the kids are home, and all the summer camps are in session.”
As for the contents of the garbage cans that he has to deal with, Buckler shrugs them off. “We get the occasional dead cat or dog. During hunting season we get deer carcasses. We take them if they’re in a can.” He grins. “Sometimes people ask me if I see really weird stuff — but no hands or feet so far.”
The working conditions could be worse. Believe it or not, modern garbage trucks come equipped with some creature comforts. Buckler’s vehicle boasts a radio with sixstation memory, air conditioning, and an automatic transmission. And, with the simple flick of a switch, the intrepid refuse collector can shift control from the left side of his truck to the right and back again! A feature that not only promotes efficiency — but keeps Buckler and his peers from having to exit into traffic.
And, according to American Disposal’s Sales Manager Gordon Wheeler, safety is an important concern. “In the summer time the kids are out of school and the garbage man is the cheapest show in town. It’s important to watch out for them. We have regular safety meetings too.”
Fortunately there’s more to collecting garbage than vicious dogs, smelly garbage, and deer carcasses. Buckle likes his job. “It keeps me in shape, cuts down on the time I spend at the gym, and I like a lot of the customers. There are people who leave cold pop out for me every week—and go out of their way to show their appreciation of how hard our job actually is. During Christmas I get a lot of cards, tips, and presents. I was surprised when I first started, but it’s very nice.”
When it comes to the more traditional forms of compensation, Buckler is happy with those as well. “It’s a good job, has good benefits, and a good retirement plan,” he says.
What about the future? How long can somebody like Buckler throw 45-pound cans before it starts to take a toll? Wheeler says, “The average age of a guy lifting cans is 22 to 29. There’s a few that are older than that… As guys get older they move into easier jobs like driving front loaders, roll-off trucks and semis.”
While American Disposal has experienced some labor difficulties, Wheeler believes that those problems are in the past. “They brought in Keith Kovalenki as district manager. He knows how to provide good service, keep our equipment in good shape, and has the respect of the workers.”
So that’s the first part of the trip… But what happens after Buckler, or one of his co-workers, hauls your 10-day-old tuna salad off the peninsula? First it goes to the Purdy Transfer Station, where it is loaded into a rail box. Once that has been accomplished, the box is trucked to Tacoma, where it is loaded onto a train and taken to Roosevelt, Wash., which, according to information posted on the Web “is located in eastern Klickitat County, on Washington Highway 14 along the Columbia River.” (http://www.a2zgorge.info/community/towns/roosevelt.htm )
The Web posting goes on to indicate that the “2000 census lists the population of Roosevelt at 79.” So, why do the 79 people of Roosevelt want the Key Peninsula’s garbage? Because it’s valuable, that’s why! Once the garbage has been dumped into “cells,” or “sections,” it is covered with soil to “eliminate odors and to discourage seagulls, rodents and other scavengers” and left to rot. And not just rot, but produce methane gas, which the shrewd Rooseveltites use to power five generators. Generators that produce electricity that they promptly sell! So maybe Webster’s is wrong, maybe garbage is worth something, if only to the residents of Roosevelt, Washington.
And that brings us back to American Disposal’s Gordon Wheeler, a man who used to throw cans himself, and is therefore well positioned to put the whole process in perspective. “I call garbage America’s most valuable resource,” Wheeler maintains cheerfully. “There will always be garbage.”
It takes seven American Disposal Co. trucks and drivers to service the Key Peninsula. Each truck costs from $135,000 to $140,000, has a service life of about 10 years, and weighs about 31,000 pounds.
Since the average 32-gallon garbage can weighs between 40 and 45 pounds, and the average one-man route involves about 300 stops, the collector will lift at least 6 tons of material into the back of his truck each day. The citizens of the peninsula produce 52 tons of garbage each week—which adds up to approximately 2,704 tons per year.