Synopsis: Most people don’t think much about what happens to their trash after they set it at the curb. But day in and day out, refuse workers have the most dangerous municipal job, with more injuries than police or firefighters. Two experts discuss the massive job of hauling our garbage away.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Robin Nagle, Clinical professor of Anthropology and Urban Studies, New York University, anthropologist in residence, New York Sanitation Dept., and author, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City; Sam Shick, franchise operator, 1-800-GOT-JUNK

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Refuse Workers: The Dangers of Trash

REED PENCE: Garbage.  It’s a part of everyone’s life, but not everyone gives it much thought.  In fact, some people actively avoid refuse.  But the truth is trash is an industry, and we all take part in it… no one more than the men and women who make sure that all that garbage goes away.  Sanitation crews clean up the streets and keep the trash at bay.  And while the public may view dealing with trash as a less than desirable occupation, most workers feel differently.

ROBIN NAGLE: I had assumed sanitation workers generally did not like people to know what they did for a living.  That’s true of a few, but there were more people who were quite proud of their jobs, as they should be.  They were happy for anyone to know what they did for a living.

PENCE: That’s Robin Nagle, professor of anthropology at New York University, and the anthropologist in residence for the New York Sanitation Department.

NAGLE: it’s an extension of our own lack of imagination that people assume, since the job is difficult and has some aspects that we consider negative, people who have that job also think of it negatively.  That’s not the case in most instances.

PENCE: Nagle is also author of Picking Up, a book dedicated to the inside story of sanitation workers.  She says her devotion to the study of trash began at a young age.

NAGLE: I was camping with my father in the Adirondacks, and behind our campsite was a dump where campers left behind things they were too lazy to take out with them; even though they had brought in all of those things.  This was way deep in the wilderness.  I was around ten or so and I was deeply offended, angry, puzzled, and confused. I could not imagine who they thought was going to pick up after them.  That was the seed that grew into this project many years later.

PENCE: This project ultimately grew into Nagle working on a garbage truck, to thoroughly research the position.  She says that being on the job taught her just how tough it really is.

NAGLE: I learned that some of my assumptions about the job were correct, but I didn’t know how correct they were. For example: I knew the garbage was heavy, but I had no idea how heavy it feels on your body after you’ve been out picking up your share of ten, fifteen, or in some districts, twenty tons day after day.  There were aches in some parts of me that I didn’t know were possible.  I also learned that in the affluent neighborhoods of New York City, people throw away really good stuff that doesn’t look like it in any way would qualify as garbage.  But it’s on the curb, and it’s going in the back of the truck, which sort of made me sad.

PENCE: But with so much “good stuff” getting thrown out, can all of it really be considered garbage?  Are there other ways to get rid of items you don’t need, without them going to the landfill?  Sam Schick is an expert, and he says it is possible.

SAM SCHICK: One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.  There are reusable things.  If you don’t have a chair at home and need a chair, you might happen to go by one of the donation centers that has a chair we happened to pick up.  That’s a good thing.  People get to use things that they maybe can’t afford brand new, especially in the recent economy.  People enjoy buying some of the things we’re able to donate, things like that.

PENCE: Schick is a franchise operator of “1-800-GOT-JUNK?”, the largest junk removal company in the world.  They take care of items that people no longer need, but aren’t ready for the trash.

SCHICK: We bring them back to our warehouse.  We separate and sort whatever we can.  We repurpose all the metal, the plastic, the paper…all the small little things that donation groups pick up from us.  Or along the route, if we come up to a donation center where we can drop things off, we will.  We take them to transfer stations and these transfer stations are licensed to handle this type of debris.  What they do is after we get done recycling, they also have recycling efforts.  So we take them to licensed disposal centers.

PENCE: but despite efforts to recycle or reuse objects, the fact is throwing things away is a big part of our lives.  Nagle tries to get her students to realize this by taking part in an exercise.

NAGLE: They must keep anything that they would throw away for a 48-hour period.  We make that very clear.  If it’s going to be recycled you don’t have to keep it.  If it’s waste that you would flush, then you don’t have to keep it.  Let’s say you’re at a restaurant, they serve you your meal, and it’s a paper napkin.  That paper napkin will be thrown away.  You, during those 48 hours, have to hold on to it.  You eat a candy bar or eat some food on the street that is wrapped in plastic, foil, or paper; you must hold onto that.  Packaging at home that you would throw away; you must hold onto that.  The purpose of the exercise is to help my students understand just how deeply ingrained the practice of discarding has become.

PENCE: And although there are some rules, according to Nagle, most Americans don’t consider asking for permission when it comes to dumping unwanted garbage.

NAGLE: We almost treat it like a right.  We almost treat it like “as a member of the American public, anything I don’t want I can get rid of very easily by putting it out for collection.”  There are restrictions on some categories of waste that have to go through special processing: hazardous wastes of various kinds, including hazardous household waste.  But for the most part, if I don’t want it, I can put it out for collection and I don’t have to think about it again.

PENCE: In fact, new research shows that the amount of garbage produced per person may be underreported.

NAGLE: The figure that is talked about most often is four and a half pounds per person per day in the United States of garbage generation.  An author named Edward Humes wrote a book called Garbology, and he looked pretty closely at those numbers.  He said it’s closer to 7.1 pounds per person, per day on average.  And that’s taking into account not just your own household waste, or what goes in the garbage can at your office, or at your job, but also ancillary wastes that exist before we have the commodity in our hand.  Disposal is hardwired into the way we live in the modern world, and I think it’s one of the most pernicious causes of the environmental mess that we are in now as a planet.

PENCE: With so much trash being generated, sanitation workers and junk haulers have an important job.  But Nagle says refuse workers are largely invisible in our society, partly because they are so good at what they do.

NAGLE: Because they do the job well enough that the public can take them for granted, they are victims of their own success.  They get attention when they miss a stop or sometimes in New York, because sanitation is responsible for clearing snow in winter, they get attention when they respond really well or with big problems in snow.  They’ve only really encountered big problems once in the last many decades.  If they did their job badly, they would get a lot more attention.  It would be negative attention.  But because they do their job well, it’s one of the many systems that keeps the city running well that we get to overlook.  “We”, meaning people living in cities that mostly work smoothly.

PENCE: But this invisibility comes at a cost.  Sanitation workers have one of the most dangerous of all municipal jobs, more dangerous than even police and firemen.  So what makes this job so dangerous?

NAGLE: Sanitation is more dangerous because when people throw things out, and those things go into the back of the truck, the hydraulics and the machinery are such that those objects sometimes come catapulting back out.  Or substances combine in ways that emit toxins.  Or toxins themselves are thrown out illegally and then those harm the workers.

PENCE: But dangerous garbage isn’t the only formidable opponent of refuse workers.

NAGLE: The other primary cause of harm and danger is traffic.  Sanitation workers are in and out of traffic all the time.  It’s what they have to do.  Motorists generally are not patient with the truck and are not careful the way they would be with a school bus.  Even with a school bus, there are very strict laws.  Sanitation workers don’t get that same consideration because no one considers them quite so fragile.  Although a human body hit by a car is a fragile thing no matter whose body it is.  If you’re behind one on the street, that’s a nuisance to most motorists, so they tend to be a little less careful in moving around a truck.

PENCE: Despite that, the public doesn’t view this job as dangerous?   Nagle says there are a couple of reasons why.

NAGLE: A gun is a tool that a police officer needs and a firefighter is responding usually to an emergency of some kind, as police are also.  So, in other words, they react once the problem is in progress.  Sanitation workers are proactive.  They step forward to prevent a crisis from happening.  Their tools are trucks, gloves, brooms, and shovels.  There’s nothing dramatic, in most people’s thinking, to those tools.

PENCE: But since the job is so hazardous, what’s being done to keep workers safe?

NAGLE: In New York, the people in charge of the equipment are constantly trying to improve the safety of the vehicles.  They are making the sight lines clearer and adding mirrors that show you more of what’s going on around you.  There’s a modest campaign right now to get a law passed that would put the same restrictions on passing a collection truck as there are about passing school busses.  I think that has a long way to go before it would be adopted, but some people have started to push for that.  When you come on the job, part of your training is about how you stay safe.  There are all kinds of regulations imposed on the workers for their own safety, like when they must wear seat belts.  And it’s a law that they must wear these bright, reflective, neon-yellow-green vests so that they are more visible in traffic.  All that is to the good and none of that is going to be foolproof.

PENCE: Schick says that he also makes sure that his workers don’t put themselves in dangerous situations.

SCHICK: We’re really cautious about making sure our guys know that they’re not going to get involved with lifting things that are too heavy for them.  Whatever two guys can physically lift and put in the truck is what we take.  It’s a brains over brawn type of method for some of the things.  For instance: think of a piano in a basement. How do you get that out?  Well, the secret is you have to get it in in one piece, but to get it out I can take it out in several pieces.  So when I say “brains over brawn,”  my guys will go in and take apart heavy pieces of furniture and move them out piece-by-piece, rather than picking them up and pulling them out of basements.  We always look at the easiest way to take things out that’s within our limits of two guys being able to pick up.

PENCE: Schick says he also prepares his staff emotionally.

SCHICK: My guys are going to be polished.  They’re going to be in uniform.  They’re going to be polite.  They’re going to be kind.  We do sympathy training in a lot of the situations where there is a death in the family and we have to clean out apartments or houses.

PENCE: But despite the dangers these workers face, sanitation jobs are still popular.  Applications in New York are actually on the rise.  So what does Nagle hope comes from all her hard work and research?

NAGLE: I want sanitation workers, wherever they are, to get positive attention for their work.  I don’t care if they are in a big city like New York and they’re driving a big, white truck, or if they’re in a small town and it’s a small municipality that’s doing that work, or if it’s a private carter and it’s the people behind the truck working for the private carter.  If they’re picking up trash, if they are refuse workers, I want them to get thanked.

PENCE:  You can find out more information about Nagle’s book “Picking Up” on her website,, or through a link on our website…radio health journal dot net.  You’ll also find archives of our shows there, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Reed Pence.

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