Bloomington Minnesota, the city that I call home took over managing the coordination of residential trash and recycling collection last year. For some in the community there was passion over who got to take away their empty yogurt containers and used tissues. There were the folks who hated to give any more power to their government and those who were concerned over the wear and tear on our roads caused by multiple providers covering the same routes and the inherent risk that goes with increased traffic. I was in a third group. I’m the fiscal conservative who had used three different services during our fifteen years in the community. I had most recently selected the newest and most affordable option, that allowed me to downsize my trash container after my kids had moved out and was the first service that could accommodate my desire to have recycling picked up on a weekly basis (my previous providers were on a biweekly cycle).
As a household that entertains often, we frequently called upon our guests to take a bag of recycling when they departed or utilized our neighbor’s bin when possible. I also had arranged with my last two providers to drop off waste and recycling bins for our annual block party and pick them up the following morning, free of charge. I enjoyed negotiating the deals and knew that the hauler’s incentive to provide good service resulted from the very real possibility that I could change services to a competitor were their performance not satisfactory. When local politicians insisted that “nothing would change” and offered reassurances that the price would be what I’d been paying and the service available equal as well, it sounded like an empty promise that someone makes when trying to sell you on something inferior.
As with most political offerings, some were pleased with the decision to standardize collection, while others were frustrated and angry that their service provider was being dictated to them. I took more of a “wait and see” approach, hopeful that the plan would work, yet skeptical that the promises made would be promises kept.
As a little kid I remember loving to see the Garbage Man come. At that time Minneapolis permitted residents to contract with haulers of their own choosing. My family had the Wellers. You knew a Weller truck because they could hardly stand to watch a stuffed animal go to a landfill, they were prominently displayed on their trucks, my earliest exposure to animal rescue. Their trucks looked like the cross between a gypsy caravan and a carnival game-of-chance booth. The Wellers were our haulers because at least one of the Weller men was a veteran my father knew through his membership at James Ballantine VFW post 246. A man fit to serve our country was certainly worthy of collecting our refuse.
My childhood was an era where garbage haulers typically had a driver and two collectors who appeared choreographed like circus performers, swinging onto and off of the stuck, swooping up cans and gracefully dumping their contents into the rear of the truck. There were no automated arms that lifted and dumped the bins under the direction of a driver in a climate-controlled cab. These men worked. It was a physical labor. Cans were not uniform, though most were galvanized steel, with lids kids often used as a shield during snowball fights or play military maneuvers. Those cans were noisy and easily dented. Ours were plain, my best friend’s family had cans that had been painted with various Peanuts cartoon characters by one of her sisters. Sometime during the 1970’s plastic cans became the vogue. The plastic barrels were much larger, not as heavy, more durable and less noisy, though lacking in charm.
Garbage was different back in the day. My brothers were in elementary school when they took charge of the “burner”. Most homes had a can that was allocated as a burn barrel, perforated to allow air in, often perched on a pair of cinder blocks. The burner was where cereal boxes, paper plates and Dixie cups were disposed of. Eventually the ashes from the burn barrel had to be disposed of and the Wellers would pull off a work glove and let the ashes fall through their fingers, feeling for any embers before dumping it into the truck. Their thick-skinned, nearly leather hands being somewhat immune to the heat, occasionally you’d see a Weller truck or one of their competitors with the back end smoldering. I don’t recall exactly when burn barrels went away or when giving kids matches was deemed a bad idea but perhaps it coincided with when trash cans grew larger.
Recycling for me as a child was carrying an 8-pack of soda bottles back to the store or returning a milk jug to get a deposit back. Newspapers were bundled and tied with twine and saved for youth events called “paper drives” or “paper sales” that schools or organizations sponsored to raise money. I was in college before I heard of people saving aluminum cans and recycling them for money. That whole process changed to a system where we now are required to collect the newspaper, plastic, glass and aluminum. Then we pay a service to take it from us, so they may be compensated for what we bought, collected, stored and wheeled out to the curb. It’s sort of like if we paid Goodwill, ARC or DAV to take our donations of clothing and household goods which they later sell. Difficult to determine which is more environmentally friendly; having trucks roll up and down the streets and transport the goods to facilities that had to be built and process the waste or letting a kid take it out back and incinerate it.
Our new trash collection for the city of Bloomington began on October 3rd. As predicted, the rate that I currently pay is substantially more than the rate I had negotiated with my last provider. I am sad to acknowledge that my service is in fact not the same quality that I previously had. My recycling is full on a weekly basis and in theory they pick it up biweekly, just like the plan I had dropped last go-round. I say “in theory” because in addition to paying more, I also do more work with our new provider. Today I had to call them (yet again) to tell them they had not picked up my recycling yesterday morning and they assured me it would be picked up by the end of the day tomorrow (they did manage to get it this afternoon). I have no real recourse, as they know they have my business whether they do a good job or not. My leverage and freedom to choose has been eliminated, as apparently so has their incentive to take pride in their work.
While I’m all in favor of measures that improve the environment, increase recycling and reduce what goes into landfills, there are times I grow a little nostalgic. I miss workers in a family business who don’t take my business for granted. I long for the simplicity of reuse efforts like attaching a giant purple bear to the grill of a garbage truck. Finally, there is a little piece of me that admired the bravery of men hanging onto the back of a slightly smoldering truck.
Despite the many changes in the industry over the years since my own childhood, there seems to be one thing that remains the same. Kids are fascinated and enamored with the big trucks that take our trash away and the men (and women too) who work on them.