Trash Talk

From the top of Mount Milam to the depths of the Pit with the people who take out St. Louis' garbage

Bill Little, a small, thin man with glasses and a mustache, has worked in the position of Heavy Equipment Operator 2 for St. Louis' Refuse Division for the last 14 of his 52 years. Essentially, he drives a trash truck that plies the alleys of South City.

Little knows his alleys like a riverboat pilot knows bends in the river. He tools down them in a big orange truck, the "bandit trash truck," so named because of the hydraulic lifting arm on one side: one-armed bandit. The brakes are squeaky, making a godawful noise every time he stops, and the resulting cacophony of barking puts the immediate neighborhood in an uproar. "Dogs don't like trash trucks," Little says over the commotion. Inside, the truck shakes and boogies as Little works the joystick that controls the movements of the hydraulic arm as it latches onto the Dumpster and bench-presses it up on a candy-cane-shaped track until the contents upend and spill into the open hopper. The entire process takes 15-25 seconds, but that's because Little is expert at this complex maneuver. He does it some 325 times a day.

Little has two Dumpster routes, one in Holly Hills on Mondays and Thursdays and another to the north, off Chippewa Street, on Tuesdays and Fridays. One is better -- or easier -- than the other. The folks on the Holly Hills route, says Little, "are serious about their trash." By that, he means they take that extra step to keep their alleys clean and orderly, and, unlike the alleys on the Chippewa route, there are usually no mattresses, furniture or other bulky stuff blocking the way and forcing Little to get out and move something before he can jockey the truck into position to lift the Dumpster.

City refuse commissioner Nick Yung oversees a fiefdom of 165 employees, 120 refuse trucks, 20,000 roll-out carts and 30,000 trash containers.
Jennifer Silverberg
City refuse commissioner Nick Yung oversees a fiefdom of 165 employees, 120 refuse trucks, 20,000 roll-out carts and 30,000 trash containers.

It is a midsummer Thursday morning. Little is on his second run from the staging area out of the South Transfer Station off Gasconade Street, down near the river. He clocked in at 5:30 a.m., picked up his route sheet and hit the streets about 6. At 8:19 a.m. he returned with his first load, rolling up onto the scales and pausing to be weighed. His net was 6.4 tons, a little above average for a Thursday. Almost always there is more trash at the start of the week, says Little: "Backyard parties, people out enjoying themselves -- these containers are all filled up." On the Holly Hills route, for example, the Monday pickup (Thursday-Monday) yields about five loads, or 20-22 tons, whereas the Thursday pickup (Monday-Thursday) yields about three loads, or 12-13 tons.

Now it is 10:10 a.m., and the temperature is rising. Children start to play in backyard pools. A guy on his back porch waves as Little passes. "The people are friendly," says Little, a 14-year veteran of this route. "I'm a regular part of the neighborhood. They can tell time by me. They know when I'm not on time, too."

A trash collector must have the patience of Job and the concentration of Karpov to run these routes. A former over-the-road driver, Little keeps a lookout for such booby traps as utility wires, overhanging gutters and trees, any one of which the truck could snag during its motions. Another aggravation is the occasional car parked too close to the Dumpster. There are signs posted, but never mind that -- Little will deal with the problem. He simply has to make an extra step, picking up the Dumpster, moving it away from the car, dumping the trash and then bringing the receptacle back to its original spot. All this in case the Dumpster should accidentally fall, bashing the errant car parked where it's not supposed to be.

Some containers are in such obscure places that it requires skill acquired over years and all sorts of tricky maneuvers to get to them. A driver must back in (remember, the arm is only on one side, though some trucks have them on both sides), turn the tight corner, hug the wall or nearly scrape the garage because there's a car in the way -- all that work for one little container with maybe just a bag of kitty litter inside. Some turns are too much trouble -- it's easier to back out and go around the block. Sometimes a container is busted or filled with something amazingly heavy, such as bricks or concrete. If Little can't lift it or it looks as though the hydraulic arm will break trying, he writes up the location, and a heavy-duty "overload truck" is called in.

Little says his route has improved over time: "The trucks are way better," he notes. "The routes are smaller than they once were, more manageable." Another significant change is the "yard waste only" container, introduced about six years ago because of legislation that prohibited the mixing of yard and household waste. Segregating the yard waste makes a lot of sense environmentally: By thinking about yard waste as a separate thing, people may be prompted to compost it or use it as ground cover in their yards, saving landfill space in the process. Even the vast cubic yards of grass clippings that find their way into Dumpsters go to the landfill and become mulch.

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