Trash Talk

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

Still, percentage-wise, there is not a whole lot of organic material; the bulk of the refuse is trash bags with containers and packages, and it is dry. Occasionally there is a whiff of something ripe -- some bad eggs or a three-day-dead, maggot-infested cat -- but the real insult to the olfactory tract is back at the South Transfer Station, in the Pit, a hangarlike edifice where the collected trash is brought, dumped and consolidated for transfer to the landfill. It is there where all the day's trash intermingles, effusing for a time nearly every noxious odor known to man.

Bill Little gets the alleys one by one. Every so often he must stop and open the hopper to remove some obstruction -- often a cardboard box -- that is preventing the compactor from crushing the trash. The hopper has two openings: one on the side, where Little does occasional maintenance, and one on the top, which the trash spills into. This hopper has seen some action. "I have dumped some cats," remarks Little. "I've seen them jump out of the hopper as I drove away. Once I picked up a bum who was sleeping in one of the containers. He didn't make it into the hopper -- he was yelling like crazy to put him down."

At 10:30 a.m. on Salzburger Avenue, a thoroughfare with homes the size of a West County garage, Little empties a Dumpster. By 11:45, Little has wrapped up the second run and rolls across the scales with 5.6 tons of garbage. The scalemaster hands Little a receipt and waves him through. The trash is now the property and responsibility of Waste Management Inc. A mega-trash-service company with operations in all 50 states, Waste Management makes hay from our collective garbage: The city pays the company by the tonnage for the trash it handles, and it handles about 1,000 tons a day. Bill Little drives his rig into the Pit and ejects the contents, providing a strange sight. The rear hatch opens, and the contents are slowly pushed out. It looks as if the truck is moving its bowels -- taking a dump, if you will. A bulldozer then pushes the trash around into piles, consolidating the mix.

Joe Durako, a Waste Management Inc. VP, is king of the hill at Mount Milam.
Jennifer Silverberg
Joe Durako, a Waste Management Inc. VP, is king of the hill at Mount Milam.
Joe Durako, a Waste Management Inc. VP, is king of the hill at Mount Milam.
Jennifer Silverberg
Joe Durako, a Waste Management Inc. VP, is king of the hill at Mount Milam.

All city trash goes to either the South or North Transfer Station. All trash from the South Transfer Station goes to the Milam Landfill in East St. Louis; all trash from North Transfer Station on Hall Street goes to the Chain of Rocks Landfill, also in Illinois. By 12:30 p.m., Little's last load has been pushed into the waiting cargo bin of a tractor-trailer and carted off to Milam. By 2:30, having made three runs on the Holly Hills route, Bill Little is heading home to South City while the trash he collected is being compacted and buried.

The tawny slopes of Milam might be mistaken by some for yet another of the earthen mounds that dot the area, remnants of an ancient civilization. Across I-55/70, about two miles northeast of Milam, sits Monk's Mound, an archeological treasure considered the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the Americas. Though both mounds have been raised through human toil, they differ significantly: Monk's Mound was built in stages over a 200- to 300-year period by generations of Indians lugging baskets of dirt up an ever-increasing incline. Its base covers an area of 14 acres, and, though eroded, it rises to a height of 100 feet. The summit of this mound was home to the ruling Sun Chief and his family and lieutenants. This royal party was literally elevated to superior status over the hoi polloi below. Milam, on the other hand, was built over a 40-year period by waste haulers trucking trash up an ever-increasing incline. Its base covers an area of 170 acres, and it rises to a height of 125 feet. The summit of this mound is home to a flock of garbage-eating seagulls, which may or may not feel superior to the hoi polloi below.

An estimated 65 to 70 percent of Milam consists of St. Louis trash. Five days a week, four tractor-trailers filled with 18-22 tons per load make eight trips each from the South Transfer Station to the landfill. That's 32 tractor-trailers of trash, roughly 640 tons per day, from South City alone. On top of this is a steady stream of dump trucks and refuse trucks from municipalities within a 60-mile radius, up to 300 per day, adding their loads to the landfill.

From 5 a.m.-4 p.m., the seagulls share the top of the landfill with a bustling crew of men and machines. Traffic on Mount Milam has no resemblance to that of an ordered city street. There are no lanes or stop signs, just trucks and more trucks plowing along, stopping, turning, dumping, backing up, the sounds of engines whining amid the smell of garbage and diesel fuel. "The first rule of driving on a landfill," says Cathy Arnold, division manager with Waste Management Inc., driving a green company pickup, "[is] watch out for trucks. If there's a contest between a truck and car, the truck is going to win."

Arnold notes that the Milam Landfill is "clean and presentable," and that's true of the overall picture: a natural-looking grassy mound devoid of signage or loose trash blowing around. Atop the mound, however, in the active work area, the scene looks like a construction site -- or possibly a version of Dante's hell. Bulldozers roll back and forth across the newly acquired garbage, spreading and crushing it down into a bed of soil and trash. Massive compactors then finish the job, crushing the trash down some more. At the foot of an idling compactor, two workers talk, and the men are dwarfed by the machine, dwarfed even by the huge, knobby metal wheels of the compactor, a Trashmaster 390 C, which looks like something the Roman army would have used to bash down fortifications.

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