The Secret of life trash

by Eric Ginsburg

A trash can is dumped into the truck of Lockett Alston in a neighborhood in east Greensboro. (photo by Alexandria Stewart)

It’s no secret that Greensboro is in the midst of a battle about how to dispose of its solid waste.

Public discourse — in the media, council meetings and other forums — has mostly focused on the end result: where the trash will ultimately lay to rest and who will have to compromise. What about all the steps it takes to get there?

Most of us think about trash when we haul our green can to the curb on the assigned weekday, or as we hold our breath while knotting a bag full of a week of our waste. Sometimes I hear the large, automated sideloading truck rumbling down my street in the hours before waking up.

I don’t get around to dragging my trashcan back to the side of the house until a day or two later. By then, its contents have magically disappeared. Theoretically I know somebody picked it up and that it will wind up in a landfill, but it seems high time to demystify the process.


Navigating a complex series of levers and buttons, Lockett Alston picks up a trash can and empties the contents into his truck. (photo by Alexandria Stewart)

Lockett Alston’s story

Kevin Matherly, who supervises four of the 16 refuse drivers and a number of other waste-management personnel, is driving me to meet with a pick-up driver who is already in the middle of a route. As we ride in his truck towards the Cardinal, a recently annexed area near the airport, he tells me about his days as a driver/operator.

“It takes a video-game coordination, to put it in laymen’s terms,” Matherly says, describing how operators use a joystick to control the side-loading arm. After driving the trucks for the past 15 years, he’s got some stories to tell about chemical fires in his truck and once discovering a dog’s body in the trash.

He’s driving me out for a ride along with veteran operator Lockett Alston. After studying Industrial Technology with an automotive focus at NC A&T University, his hunting buddy told him about an opening with the city as a truck operator. He’s not sure exactly when he started the job, but Matherly estimates Alston’s been at it for more than 20 years.

After putting on a neon-yellow reflective vest fastenedin the front with Velcro, I climb the two steps into the high truck and sink into a seat across from countless switches and buttons. He’s grown used to driving from the right-hand side of the truck and the constant lurching it makes as it rolls from can to can.

As we ride through the suburban streets, Alston explains the ins and outs of the job, both technical and personal.

People are more likely to put out trash when it’s their week for recycling too. The truck fills up more quickly later in the week, when the routes go through east and southeast Greensboro.

“We mostly do a lot of circling, trying not to back up,” he says. At one point he pulls in to an empty church parking lot to avoid turning around. Later when I ask if he’s able to leave the job behind mentally at the end of the day, Alston says he is but that he does have a recurring dream about reversing the truck.

“I’m always backing up. I guess it’s the fear of backing up and hitting something,” he says. “I know something’s back there and I can’t see it or the truck is out of control and I can’t steer the thing.”

Alston laughs — he is friendly and goodnatured — and says he also sometimes has the dream where he’s a student again, taking a test and he doesn’t know any of the material.

Some residential areas are particularly difficult for drivers, especially with courts, cul-desacs, parked cars and careless drivers.

“Some people, they’re not thinking or they’ve got a lot on their mind,” Alston says of drivers who fly past him. “It’s like they want you to hit them.

Operators work 40 hours a week, pulling 10-hour days on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Alston wakes up at his home near Dudley High School around 5:30 punch in by 7 and works until 4 p.m. Once the truck fills up he takes it to the filling station, twice a day, and will take a quick break.

Alston packs his lunch and eats it in the truck. He says if he stops for too long, it will throw off his rhythm. The job seems repetitive and lonely, but Alston says he has no problem with it.

“No two days are the same,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s a lot of fun because you see so many different people. I can’t complain.”

The rumbling of the truck is loud enough that sometimes I have to repeat myself so he can hear me. I struggle to take down notes as the truck shakes, and my questionable handwriting is approaching illegibility.

A driver will service approximately 850 units — in this case, houses — per day. There are roughly 1,110 houses per route, and Matherly says it usually takes drivers 12 to 15 seconds per can.

Solid Waste Division Manager Sheldon Smith says that even if the White Street landfill is reopened to refuse and bulk waste, drivers’ routes and hours won’t be affected. The transfer station and White Street landfill are both within city limits, making a transition — if necessary — relatively seamless for them.

Alston isn’t so sure. He points out that when they dump at the transfer station the ground is conrete, but the landfill is uneven ground.

“With the weight of the bed up in the air like that,” he says pointing behind him at the truck, “it could cause some trouble. Hopefully it’ll work out for us.”

Alston has had to help a co-worker with half of a dead deer that was stuck in the truck years ago, and has heard chatter on the radio about people finding dead dogs. The frontloading trucks that pick up from large dumpsters encounter raccoons, but he’s more likely to see a stuffed animal. He’s had a fire in his truck, too.

“I came 10 to 15 minutes from them putting hot ashes in the can,” he explains. “I smelled the ashes but didn’t realize they were hot at the time.”

Thirty minutes later, when he smelled smoke, he called the fire department and had to dump the entire load at the end of the street to avoid letting the truck burn.

The truck has three cameras, providing him with a view of the top of the bed as the sideloader dumps the garbage, one for reversing and the third allowing him to see the other lane or cars attempting to pass him. The cameras share a screen, and he flips between them as needed.

Since the majority of the work is automated, most of Alston’s interactions with trash are limited to what he can see on the screen or when he dumps the trucks tonnage of waste at the transfer station.

As he raises the truck bed unleashing its contents on a massive pile and some of the empty floor, I can see a number of things besides trash bags falling out. A garden hose. A broom. A basketball and aerosol can roll loose. I can hear the sound of breaking glass amidst the thudding of roughly 10 tons of waste.

Alston has seen a number of things going into or coming out of his truck that didn’t belong there, both recycling and yard waste. Most of it is cardboard, but he also sees a decent amount of grass, which is bad in the heat because it will occasionally catch fire and also because it frequently falls out of the can onto the ground instead of making it in the truck.

Once inside, most of the waste stays there, though Alston has seen shredded paper and empty plastic bags fly off the truck, which isn’t surprising because he says roughly half of people don’t bag their trash. Often there’s nothing he can do about it, but if a large amount breaks free he’ll stop the truck and go after it.

Trash by numbers

When Sheldon Smith looks at trash, one of the things he thinks of is numbers. Since 2006, he’s been working as the city’s Solid Waste Division manager and has already implemented a number of cost-saving measures.

In August, the department carried out a complete collections rerouting process, which hadn’t been done in at least a decade. They were able to cut the number of routes and save the city an estimated $1.1 million.

One of the things Smith is most excited about is the possibility of providing incentives for recycling, which will be easier thanks to a small state award they recently received. He says increasing the amount people recycle could save the city a significant amount of money.

“We are a throwaway society. Maybe residents don’t realize that every little bit helps,” said Smith. “[Recycling] does save us a tremendous amount of money.”

For every ton of refuse taken to the transfer station, the city pays a $41 tipping fee, while they only pay $21.72 per ton of recycling. Residents throw a significant portion of recy clable

material in the trash, and if it could be properly sorted the city would pocket the savings. Smith said diverting at least an additional 10 percent of the trash tonnage into recycling bins seems attainable.

The department collects trash four days a week, and everyone seems to agree that the Thursday and Friday pick up zones generate more trash.

“You can actually see that trend,” Smith said. “What I’ve seen in my years of service is typically in areas with a lot of blight…. You have a lot of garbage in those communities.”

Smith said how much trash people create and how much they recycle can be explained by socioeconomic factors that force people into certain consumption habits. Matherly said part of the problem is that the lower-income communities often have more rental units where people might not know their recycling week.

“Areas with a higher participation rate on recycling typically have less refuse,” Matherly said. “I’m a real stickler for recycling at my house.”

On numerous routes, less than 50 percent of residents put out recycling to be collected.

The department estimates that residential and commercial refuse — that doesn’t include bulk trash and yard waste — cost nearly $5.16 million in fiscal year 2010. On the other hand, the city only paid 28.845 dollars for recycling in that time. Some of those costs are recuperated by charging businesses for trash and recycling pickup, but Smith wants to provide further incentives to recycle.

For example, Smith would like to see the city’s largest commercial customer — the Greensboro Housing Authority — increase their recycling program and save itself money by decreasing the amount spent on trash Dumpsters.

The department may also help the city save money by installing recycling bins every two blocks in parts of downtown, diverting more recyclable material out of the trash. Smith says Downtown Greensboro Inc. has expressed interest in the plan.

Another partial solution, Smith said, is to develop markets for other recyclables, such as plastics 1 through 7, which the city can’t currently collect but could possibly save funds on in the future.


Some residents have certainly developed closer relationships with the truck operators who pick up their unwanted leftovers. One couple would bake brownies for the drivers who came by and helped them haul the cans to the curb because they were unable to, something Matherly says they were all quite fond of.

As I drove around with Alston a number of people stopped to wave. A few kids stared in awe, which Alston said was hardly unusual. Besides this one ride-along, however, my connection to these middlemen consists of the contents of my green can.

If I was going to be thinking this much about trash, it only made sense to start keeping track of what I was putting into it.

My trash production for a week was pretty revealing, and at times embarrassing. Even though we don’t have a garden,

I started to realize just how much we weren’t composting. My girlfriend buzzed my hair in our bathroom, and all those dark brown ringlets ended up in a plastic bag. I threw out banana peels, lint from the dryer, too many Q-tips, a citronella candle that was outside for too long, an empty pen and plenty of paper towels. The majority of my waste was food packaging, whether from bags of frozen fruit or wrapping from a block of Swiss cheese.

And since we use the same trash can, I have to mention the generous amount of food packaging from all of my roommate’s meals including Styrofoam take-out boxes, bags from Wendy’s and Cookout, and molding seafood from the back of the fridge. I pulled soda cans, an empty carton of sweet tea, cardboard pasta boxes and loose pieces of paper out of our trash this week too.

To some extent it’s easy for me to place the blame elsewhere. I don’t create that much trash, especially considering how much our consumer culture operates on planned obsolescence, right?

But that’s exactly the problem. As someone said at a panel about the landfill on June 7, “Convenience is killing us all.” Yes, we’re talking about our trash now, but it seems that part of the reason we’re in such a crisis is that we attempted to ignore it for the last decade.

The issue went to court June 13, and the judge extended the temporary restraining order so he has time to rule on whether to prevent contract negotiations until the city meets contingency requirements, changes course, or until a trial verdict. Either way, his decision presents some time for reflection.

There are many elements that haven’t entered the public discourse, such as the numerous apartment complexes that don’t offer recycling or looking at how other cities reduced trash production by banning plastic bags in grocery stores, making recycling mandatory and countless other innovative approaches.

This time the conversation can begin with how much trash we all generate and how to decrease it instead of solely focusing on where to put it.