Trash Talk

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

The Dodge Ram has a hitch in the front so that at the end of the workday, around 3 p.m., Clair can hook up to the International and tow himself back to HQ. It is a one-man job, and Clair, 58, has been doing it for 23 years. All told, he has close to 40 years' experience in trash pickup. At one time, when trash burning was legal, he worked the "stump truck," climbing a ladder and dumping ashes into the hopper all day. He has been a helper, and he has had helpers. But helpers, or "swingers" -- those who, under the old system, did the real work of running through the neighborhoods, tossing trash at breakneck pace, trying to keep up with the truck -- are all but obsolete. Lee Davis, 28, Superior Service's North Site supervisor, says the company has gone to one-man routes: "Helpers are saving the driver a few steps per stop, but really that system amounts to two people on a payroll doing one man's work."

Superior Services hit the local waste-disposal industry like Dom DeLuise doing a cannonball off a high-dive. Waste Management may have operations in all 50 states, but Superior, a subsidiary of Vivendi (a major European environmental-services provider), is fast catching up. Countrywide, they provide solid-waste collection and disposal in 14 states and counting. In their local scope of operations, which takes in a large portion of St. Louis County, St. Charles County and the Metro East, they have 112 routes; 125 pieces of equipment, mostly trucks; two dispatch stations; one landfill, Oak Ridge, on the Meramec River in Valley Park; and 200 employees, mainly drivers. Since Superior's arrival in fall 1996, they have acquired seven separate local waste/sanitation operations, including the employees, equipment and routes.

One of the buyouts was E&H Hauling, Art Clair's longtime employer. To Superior's credit, they did not alter his status -- "All my seniority rolled over to the new company," says Clair -- or change his route. He still comes in around 6:30 a.m., checks the route sheet to see whether there are any new stops, any cancellations. At 6:45, he heads for the staging area, towing the little pickup behind the International. In the Dodge Ram, he has his transistor radio set on Majic 104.9 FM, his Winstons on the dash and his ham sandwich on the seat, and that's all he needs.

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.

Perhaps it's the novelty of having a passenger, but Clair is talking a blue streak as he wheels the pickup down the placid streets of upper Ladue. "There's a lot more to remember out here on a trash route with back-door services than there is on a curb route," he offers. "Some of these stops have combination locks on the doors -- you've got to keep all those numbers straight." There are other problems as well: "Best to look in them cans before you stick your arm in -- might be a possum or a raccoon in it, and you don't want to grab one of them."

Whatever the hassles, Clair appreciates his current clientele: "These customers know me by name," he says, "and they appreciate the work I do. A few them keeps a cooler with sody in it for me, and a few years back, when I was in the hospital for surgery, some of them sent plants to the hospital.

"There's good days and bad days," Clair admits. "The best time is Christmas, because of the tips."

It's a safe bet that Bill Little in the city doesn't get any tips at Christmas. But Ladue is, well, Ladue, and a bit different. For instance, Ladue doesn't contract with one refuse hauler like other municipalities. Instead, residents choose from three authorized haulers. This translates to spotty service for each of the haulers. A driver rarely stops at every home on a street but instead hopscotches -- picking up trash at three in a row, skipping two, doing two more, skipping one and so on. That's why Clair checks the route sheet each day: Folks get irked at one hauler, they cancel and go to another. Some skinflints even decide to save a few bucks a month by exporting their trash to the city, where they surreptitiously chuck it into one of the Dumpsters.

Close to 3 o' clock, Clair drives down Conway Road with the day's final haul: Back to the mother truck parked beside the flower bed at the country-club entrance, back to the dispatch station in Earth City. But first he will head to the landfill to deliver the day's trash. If he went to Superior's own landfill in Valley Park, the company would save $9 a ton on trash disposal, but logistically it doesn't work that way. So Clair will go to the Bridgeton Landfill, in the 13000 block of St. Charles Rock Road, which is proximate to the Earth City office. Chalk up another day.

As Clair heads home to his wife and dinner in Spanish Lake, all thoughts of the route are left behind. All he needs to know is that the trash will be waiting for him when he returns tomorrow.

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