Trash Talk

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

The recycling movement preaches the virtues of the three R's: recycle, reduce, reuse. Indeed, some effort must be made, or we'll all find ourselves standing knee-deep in our own dross. We used to burn the household trash in backyard barrels or take it to the city dump. Now burning is prohibited, and the city dump has become the landfill. And it seems the landfill, too, is a menace, at least to those in whose backyards it sits. When the landfill reaches maturity and begins to loom over the surrounding landscape, citizens band together to stanch the flow of trash or divert the stream somewhere else. Recycling advocates say it makes more sense to reduce the volume of the stream than to create more reservoirs for the stream to fill.

People didn't generate this volume of trash in past generations, and what was thrown out was in turn filched by ragpickers, who scoured the bins, taking anything of possible use or value, no matter how small. In her new book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, author Susan Strasser writes: "Most Americans produced little trash before the 20th century. Packaged goods were becoming popular as the century began, but merchants continued to sell most food, hardware and cleaning products in bulk. Their customers practiced habits of reuse that had prevailed in agricultural communities here and abroad. Durable items were passed on to people of other classes or generations, or stored in attics or basements for later use. Objects of no use to adults became playthings for children. Broken or worn out things could be brought back to their makers, fixed by somebody handy.... [T]hings that could not be used in any way were burned; especially in the homes of the poor, trash heated rooms and cooked dinners."

By midcentury, the throwaway culture was in its incipient phase. There was less of a market for the leftovers and scraps that once were sold or traded. Consumer goods proliferated, and they were individually packaged. It became easier to replace a broken fan with a new one than to take it to the fix-it shop. The fix-it shops eventually disappeared. Advancing technology, along with affordable goods, caused many things, from out-of-style clothing to outmoded computers, to be discarded long before they were worn out or broken beyond repair. This acquired habit, says Strasser, promotes "a veneration of newness not widespread before the 20th century, filling Dumpsters with "perfectly good stuff' that is simply not new anymore, stuff the owner is tired of."

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.

Some folks still inspect Dumpsters, scavenging for this perfectly good stuff. And what of refuse workers who chance on it first? Are they not tempted to claim the goods as their own? "That's called junkin'," says Bill Little, "and, no, we don't do that. If it's something you really want, I suppose you could come back after work and get it then -- if it's still there." Up on the landfill, salvaging is not allowed, either. Waste Management takes possession of all material the minute it hits the gate. So, if there's a nice TV that works, nobody gets to have it? "That's right," says Milam's Durako. "There's too many unknowns as far as the person who threw that TV away. Maybe they had a very good reason for pitching it. It could be an emotional thing -- it belonged to a loved one and they don't want that reminder. They don't want anyone else to have it. We respect that here."

The trash stream with all its tributaries ends at the landfill. It is the terminus, the dead end, the final destination for the discards of the most wasteful civilization in the history of the planet.

Art Clair could never stay away. Over the years, he left the trash business several times, trying his hand as a custodian with the school district, a laborer at Alton Brick. Each time, he would pine for his old job and wind up back on the route. "I just can't stand to be on the inside, cooped up," he says. "If you go home right after work and don't go out nowhere, you're indoors all day and all night. I'd rather be on the outside."

On a muggy late-summer Thursday, Clair is outside. Specifically, he's tooling around the verdant expanses of Ladue, Westwood and Huntleigh Woods in a Dodge Ram 50, a little workhorse pickup with a trash-bin attachment from a Cushman motorized cart situated in the truck bed. There are no alleys in these municipalities, but Clair can pull the Dodge right up to the sequestered trash cans, jump out, grab the bags and toss them in the bin; he's out of there in 20 seconds. On to the next house. He does this 200 times a day.

The big International, the mother truck, is parked just down the road at the flower-bedded entrance of Westwood Country Club, the staging area for Clair's route. The International can't go in these driveways like the Dodge Ram can. Clair would have to park it streetside and walk extra steps to the backdoor of the home. These folks pay for trash pickup, and most do not take their trash to the curb. Instead, they place it near or in the garages, the patios, the back steps, and Clair comes for it. Multiply by 200 those extras steps he would have to take if he drove the International through these neighborhoods, and you understand the efficiency of the method that Clair's employer, Superior Services, has devised. When the trash bin gets full, Clair hies it back to the country club and empties it into the mother truck. He switches on the hydraulic smasher, which compacts the trash from the back to the front of the hopper. Then he goes out for more.

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