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.

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.

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.

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.

The earliest records on the landfill date back to the late 1950s. For most of its existence, it was managed rather haphazardly and was about as popular with locals as a smoldering tire fire. Arnold, who grew up in nearby Highland, describes the early landfill as "this big, stinky mound, which often caught fire." Waste Management purchased the landfill from Laidlaw in 1984 and soon implemented a series of improvements. One of these was to effectively capture the methane gas produced by the decomposing garbage. This gas is converted to electricity. That's right: In a sort of consumer-style symbiosis, that sack of garbage carried out to the Dumpster will eventually help power the household so that more garbage can be produced.

The landfill gas is a product of the anaerobic bacteria breaking down the organic garbage; it's vented through 54 wells and six miles of collection pipe to the gas-recovery plant, a spare, nondescript structure located at the base of the mound. Inside, at a neat desk, Doug Yearian, 43, monitors various multicolored graphs on a computer screen. The graphs, with their accompanying numbers and percentages, indicate the mixtures of gas in the landfill. Yearian is a well-field technician whose primary job is to "tune" the wells -- that is, fiddle with all the gauges, knobs and levers until the gas mixture being drawn from the flatulent mound is just right. "Landfill gas has got to go somewhere," he says. "You pull the vacuum in the pipes, and that becomes the easiest place for it to go. We're pulling in 1.2 million cubic feet of gas a day, strictly off garbage."

Yearian's work area is small compared with the operation on the other side of a big plate-glass window. Three 16-cylinder spark-ignited diesel engines hum consonantly, powered by piped-in methane. Attached to the tail end of each engine is a studly 800-kilowatt generator, producing 2,400 kilowatts per hour. "What we don't use for our own purposes goes to the AmerenUE grid," says Yearian over the din. "They tell us that when running full load, we're supplying about 3,500 homes with electricity each day." Since 1991, the plant has generated almost 150 billion kilowatt hours. By using methane as an alternative energy source, the plant saves 44,000 barrels of oil per year. Before this gas-to-electricity operation, the gases were burned off in pipes poking up from the mound -- simply wasted.

"If we shut down today," offers Yearian, "we believe there would be enough good methane for at least another 30 years. After that, it would taper off." Yearian emphasizes the verb "believe" because there are not many energy-producing landfills the size of Milam, so postoperative productivity is not well documented. The average landfill takes in 3,000-4,000 tons a day, but Milam takes in 6,000-8,000 tons a day.

Meanwhile, on Mount Milam, the day's trash is covered nightly with a blanket of dirt and mulch, which functions on several levels: It facilitates decomposition, it keeps the stench down and it keeps debris from blowing. The hungry seagulls will have to wait until dawn and a new day's inflow of trash for their repast. The mulch is made on-site from tons and tons of arriving yard waste -- a mixture of grass clippings, tree branches, dogshit and what-have-you. "First we grind it up," says Joe Durako, 38, Waste Management Inc. vice president and Milam's head honcho, "and then put it into windrows, which we measure for moisture and temperature. We turn it with machinery, and it sort of cooks over time and turns into a pretty good ... we call it topsoil. We have really sandy soil over here, so this mulch helps with grass growth. We don't like to see a lot of brown dirt and erosion."

Because Milam's chief commodity is airspace, as Durako jocularly states, large chunks of concrete are not welcome, and it becomes necessary to break them down. "We have a rock-crushing operation here that takes foundations, bridge decks, sidewalks, things of that nature," says Durako. "We grind it up and turn it into a size of gravel that we like to use here, mostly for on-site roads, and basically to keep it out of the landfill."

Concrete isn't going to break down with any expediency, but other things considered biodegradable are taking their time as well. Borings made deep into landfills are reported to have produced newspapers still legible, hot dogs still pink on the inside. Durako explains that this is due in part to the daily applications of mulch to each day's fresh trash. It's like a hermetic seal, he says: "You're constantly covering it, so you naturally have layers that cap and close off things."

Five days a week, the trucks pull through the gate, bearing all sorts of waste, including industrial sludge. But mostly, says Durako, it is "municipal solid waste, household garbage, the stuff you and I put out at the curb." Paper is the single largest waste item in the landfill. According to a recent report issued by the Recycling Section of the city of St. Louis' Refuse Division, paper occupies 38 percent of space in the average landfill, despite the fact that it is the most easily recycled material.

What won't you see in the landfill? Hazardous waste, tires and batteries. Illinois law also prohibits the dumping of appliances such as refrigerators, stoves and washing machines at the landfill. They will have to go somewhere else -- recycling stations, specialized landfills and scrapyards. In fact, the landfill is required by law to screen out unauthorized refuse. The measures used, says Durako, include securing a permit from the state to haul waste; filling out a load manifest for each trip; a camera system at the gate to record the load; and a scale clerk who asks questions and checks paperwork for accuracy. "And what I consider the best check," says Durako, "are the operators up on the site who've been there a long time and are very familiar with what those trucks bring in and what should be on them."

However highly regulated the landfill and scrupulous its managers, it still stands to reason that some unauthorized materials will inadvertently make their way into the mix. "You got people that want to sneak something in," admits Durako. "They put a bunch of innocent-looking stuff over a load, trying to hide a barrel of something in the middle. I can't say that hasn't happened on occasion, but one barrel of some product mixed in with 5,000 tons of other garbage that day, that would be pretty darn dilute in terms of the whole picture. And that's what our groundwater-monitoring wells and leachate-collection systems are for -- to catch these things and keep them from becoming a public-health issue."

On the side of a convenience store in East St. Louis is a door marked Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center. The office is a nexus for several community organizations whose collective hope it is to make the beleaguered city a healthy, livable place. Inside at a desk sits Kathy Andria, studying some official documents that have just arrived. It is mid-October, and the news is good for Andria and the others who are trying through legal means to thwart Waste Management in its current bid to expand Milam. Andria, 59, wears two hats: She is director of the American Bottom Conservancy and environmental-committee chair of the East St. Louis Community Action Network, a coalition of 26 neighborhood and community organizations that represent a lot of folks who have a vested interest in the fate of the Milam Landfill. Some want the landfill to close for health reasons: They believe that it is both an immediate and future threat to the environment. Others object to Milam for aesthetic reasons: They believe that no amount of mulch and grass can disguise its unsightly blemishes and warts. But they all want the dumping to end.

Perhaps their biggest worry is one of health, specifically that the landfill cannot effectively contain some of the more insidious materials. "They take in special wastes there," says Andria, "industrial sludges, which come from places like Olin, Mallinckrodt, the Granite City treatment plant, and those sludges contain heavy metals that when combined may even form new chemicals. That waste may not be hazardous technically, but when all that sludge mixes and makes this giant soup, it's every bit as toxic as a hazardous-waste landfill."

Andria pulls out old copies of Rachel's Hazardous Waste News, a periodical of the Environmental Research Foundation in Annapolis, Md. -- a watchdog group founded by Rachel Carson, who penned Silent Spring, the work that helped galvanize the environmental movement so many years ago. This edition, from 1987, offers the disturbing conclusion of the EPA that all landfills will eventually leak, even those using the best-available liners: "A liner is a barrier technology that prevents or greatly restricts migration of liquids into the ground. No liner, however, can keep all liquids out of the ground for all time."

Durako counters that there are elaborate prophylactic measures in place against leakage and contamination: "Milam uses the Composite Liner System, consisting of, from base level up, 3 feet of compacted clay followed by a continuous field of plastic known as high-density polyethylene. Over that is 1 foot of sand, followed by another liner of nonwoven fabric over the sand." In addition, says Durako, there are 30 groundwater wells around the landfill, each continually monitored, and Durako and his engineers have pagers tied to that monitoring system.

Andria pulls out another edition of the Rachel's newsletter, dated April 1988. She has highlighted an excerpt stating that "a careful study of 50 landfills in 1977 concluded that 43 out of 50 had contaminated underground water supplies beyond the boundaries of the landfill." In all 43 cases, "the landfill was confirmed as the source of contamination."

Andria and her confederates in the neighborhood organizations aren't buying Waste Management's assurances that all is well. She says that Cahokia Creek, near the Milam Landfill, was tested by the Illinois Department of Transportation as part of an environmental-impact statement (EIS) prepared for the proposed I-70 Missouri-Illinois bridge and that contamination has been registered. There is no evidence, however, that the landfill is responsible for the contamination. "We're not claiming that it comes from the landfill," says John McCarthy of Sverdrup Civil Inc., which prepared the EIS. "We don't know where it comes from. All we did is take a soil sample near the landfill, and the sample determined that there were some problems."

Maggie Carson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, says that in recent years there have been no serious issues involving Milam. "The last report of a problem with groundwater contamination was in 1992, which they took care of with corrective action." Carson says. "There have been a few, very few, citizen complaints about Milam Landfill." She notes that more stringent regulations for landfills were instituted in 1990, and, "since those have been in place, it has improved landfills and reduced problems significantly. Most of the landfill problems are from old landfills."

Which, of course, Milam is -- specifically, a 40-year-old landfill. That's another issue raised by Andria et al.: The landfill is grandfathered in. All those layers of sand, plastic and fabric are resting on a previous barrier, perhaps state-of-the-art for the '60s or '70s when it was put in but possibly inadequate today. Milam's critics worry about that barrier leaking like a mother of five worries about her diaphragm failing. Andria's group also contends the base of the landfill is below grade compared with the surrounding land. In other words, she says, "It's sitting in water part of the year. It's just not good to locate landfills in the floodplain."

The EPA's Carson concedes that "it is certainly not likely that they [Milam] would achieve siting if they would apply [for a new landfill permit] today." Siting involves receiving the OK of the local community, and landfills must secure that approval not only to start a new operation but also to renew an existing permit, and Waste Management Inc. just went through that process with Fairmont City. Milam last expanded horizontally in the mid-'90s, encroaching into the wetlands surrounding it on the north and south. Now the landfill would like to grow again -- upward.

In November 1999, Waste Management applied to the state of Illinois to renew Milam's permit for five more years after the current permit expires in 2003. The process to renew a landfill permit is carefully proscribed. The Illinois Pollution Control Board and the EPA scrutinize such factors as how many tons are being added in what period of time, mounting elevation and slope stability. But these agencies won't even look at an application until the siting is approved. For that, Waste Management Inc. courted Fairmont City, which had recently annexed the landfill and logically hoped to enrich the town coffers through the landfill's continuance. There was a hearing in March of this year, and the city readily approved the siting. But Andria and others contend that they, as citizens, were not allowed to participate fully in the hearing process. Both the American Bottom Conservancy and the East St. Louis Community Action Network sprang into action, appealing what they perceived as a slam-dunk approval to the state pollution-control board.

This is the document that Andria is reading. The appeal had done its job: "The pollution-control board ruled that the two concerned citizen groups didn't have a fair process at the local level," she says. "The board said the siting will be done again and done fairly."

Landscape aesthetics pose another level of concern. "If they [Waste Management] do get that permit to expand," says Andria, "Milam will become the tallest landfill in Illinois. The fact that it's already higher than Monk's Mound, which is a World Heritage Site, is just disrespectful. It's ridiculous that one of the first things people driving into the state see is this massive landfill. Not only that, but most of the trash is St. Louis trash, and that's continuing the perception that the East Side is the dumping ground for St. Louis. So it needs to close. It needs to close at the end of its legal life, with no more permits to expand."

So what's the solution? We the people produce the trash without much thought to where it goes or what happens to it once it gets there. Companies such as Waste Management do the dirty work. They profit from it in the process, but it's up to them to find a safe and unobtrusive repository for our collective refuse. Durako says Milam is "filling up way too fast," but, given permit renewals, he and his cadre of engineers are confident that at the current rate of intake Milam can function until at least 2010. The Illinois EPA is less optimistic: It estimates that capacity will be reached by 2005.

To relieve some of the pressure on Milam, Waste Management has readied a new facility in Marissa, Ill., which opened in November 2000. Located on Route 13 in Randolph County, Marissa sits in coal-mining country, and the landfill is an old strip mine excavated to function as a giant wastebasket. It is expected to have a 50-year lifespan. Maybe by then our society will have found some solution to curb or better dispose of the burgeoning amounts of trash we generate.

In a second-floor office with an unattractive view westward toward South First Street, Nick Yung, glasses down on the bridge of his nose, pores over a stack of reports, the sort of thankless bureaucratic task his job requires. But there are times when he's called to action. It may be helping a woman root through fresh trash in the Pit, looking for a lost wedding ring -- good luck! -- or it may be helping the police root through the day's garbage in search of a weapon or even a body. An affable fellow who likes his job, Yung is known around City Hall as "the trashman."

Yung, 50, has been refuse commissioner since 1972, a span in which he has seen positive changes in the way in which trash is collected and handled. "Thirty years ago, we burned the trash in incinerators," he notes, "but that stopped in 1976 when the EPA said, "Too many particulates.' We started with Dumpsters in 1979. Before that, people used to buy their own cans or plastic bags, and they would set them out in the alley or street, and we would come by with the old-style garbage trucks -- the driver in front, two laborers on the back -- and they would throw it in the back of the truck."

Today, the Refuse Division's annual budget of $14 million covers a range of services, from trash pickup to recycling to vehicle maintenance. Yung oversees a fiefdom of 165 employees, 120 refuse trucks, 20,000 roll-out carts and 30,000 trash containers (commonly called Dumpsters, a brand name). According to Yung, the ratio of containers to single-family dwellings is 1-to-4. And though few cities use them, the 300-gallon-capacity containers that punctuate St. Louis' alleys have made trash disposal a real convenience here: Citizens may take out trash anytime they wish and throw sizable items in the Dumpsters, and they never have to buy trash cans.

Those parts of the city that don't have alleys are served by wheeled roll-out carts, which the residents brings out to the curb on certain days. "Many municipalities use the cart system, and we would also like to go to that," says Yung. "It assigns the individual responsibility for their own trash, and it encourages recycling. Dumpsters create problems because they're shared by four households and people tend to stack things around the Dumpsters. So, if you live at the house the Dumpster is behind, you may end up with furniture or trash bags stacked around the back of your property." Plus, says Yung, Dumpsters, because of their secluded locations and yawning capacity, represent an easy drop for questionable items: "People put all kinds of things in them, everything from hot-water heaters to sofas to engine blocks. We've had whole motorcycles put in them. Just about anything that'll fit, they put in there."

Regular free trash pickup is one of the perks of city living. St. Louis County, with its Balkan municipalities, has no counterpart to the city's Refuse Division. The county performs road maintenance and a host of other public services, but it doesn't do solid-waste pickup. Instead, the municipalities contract with independent haulers to pick up the trash. And although there are lots of mom-and-pop-type operations, 40 of the 349 licensed haulers are designated "residential haulers." These are the large outfits such as Superior Services, Allied and Waste Management, which account for the lion's share of refuse pickup in the county. Five municipalities -- Kirkwood, University City, Normandy, Valley Park and Pine Lawn -- have their own refuse departments; in these cases, the city itself is the licensed hauler.

In the city of St. Louis, the refuse trucks make 200 trips over the scales each day, hauling a combination of Dumpster/cart trash (four times a week), yard waste (once a week) and bulky trash (once a month). In fiscal year 1998-99, the Refuse Division handled some 229,000 tons of all three types of trash, a mere dollop compared with the 5.2 million tons a year generated by New Yorkers. Obviously this volume would be greatly reduced by serious recycling efforts at every level of trash processing. In many county municipalities, residents are given plastic containers in which to place glass, aluminum and newspapers. Some chide the city for not having a neighborhood recycling program. Yung, however, notes that a curbside-recycling pilot program is going on in seven city ZIP codes: "We give them containers, which are picked up once a week. The bottles, plastic, etc., are sorted at the curb by the refuse worker." The service, says Yung, costs $24 a year; the city absorbs the rest of the cost. Whats notable is that people will actually pay to be allowed to recycle.

Thats a good sign, says Rebecca Tannlund, recycling-program manager with the citys Refuse Division. According to Tannlund, 70 percent of household trash can be recycled, if folks will only make the effort. And although the curbside recycling program may be convenient, it's not the only means of practicing recycling. Special Dumpsters located throughout the city take glass, newspapers, aluminum and plastic. The catch is, you have to get the refuse to these containers.

The city treats recycling as a business: Common household recyclables are sold to Smurfit, a local recycling processor, for a modest sum, and scrap metal is sold to scrapyards at the current rate of about $35 a ton. But other items make their way into the trash stream -- batteries, motor oil, tires -- that are a hassle to deal with and even cost the city to recycle. Used alkaline batteries are accepted by outlets such as Radio Shack or Circuit City; oil is accepted for recycling at Jiffy Lube and other oil-change stations; tires are sent to a rubber-shredding operation. Overall, recycling is a business that must operate in the red. "It is a misconception that recycling is a lucrative business," Tannlund declares. "The city doesn't really make any profit, not on any of the items, once you take into account the expense of providing the bins, the sorting-out and the hauling. Even the items that bring a monetary return, unfortunately, we don't break even on."

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."

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.

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.

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.

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.