The Lives of Garbage Workers: From Solving Crimes to Defying Stereotypes

Interview with garbage workers for Waste and Recycling Workers Week


For most, interaction with garbage begins and ends with tossing trash into a container. It is rare for people to think about what happens to their trash and more importantly, who happens to their trash once they part with it. Garbage collectors, who hold one of the most important and dangerous jobs in the economy, deserve several pats on the back for holding our neighborhoods together. For this year's Garbage Worker's Week, we interviewed several individuals working in waste management, including haulers, drivers, managers, and more. We want to shine a light on the hard workers keeping our streets clean and safe.

new york city in the 19th century before garbage collection

The History of Garbage Collection 

To understand the importance of waste collection, it helps to know how low the quality of life was without it. Prior to proper waste management in cities, residents often tossed their trash into the streets or buried it in their backyards. This inefficient way of dealing with garbage led to horrible odors, rodent issues, and rising disease levels, not to mention making cities eye-sores. 

Cities such as New York were famously filthy, and it's even been said that the city's odor was so strong newcomers could smell it from the sea. Although Benjamin Franklin started a garbage collection program in the late 1700s, it wasn't until the late 1800s that cities nationwide began to clean up their trash. Garbage collectors used horses as transportation and collected the trash residents placed on the street to bring to local trash dumps. 

Garbage collection is one of the most dangerous jobs

Modern waste management has come a long way, but the job of a garbage collector is still hard work. This is especially the case since Americans produce over 292 million tons of trash yearly, and only about 120,000 waste workers are employed in the US. 

Not only is garbage collection a physically demanding job, but it's also a precarious one. Sanitation workers have job fatality risks that are ten times higher than that of other jobs. This puts them above jobs like mining, which is known for its high danger rates. In fact, there are 33 garbage collector fatalities reported for every 100,000. The average amount for all other jobs is 3.2. 

What makes garbage collection so dangerous? 

Dealing with heavy machinery and hazardous waste, and working near traffic makes being a garbage collector very risky. In fact, collision-related deaths are some of the highest causes of fatalities in the industry, aside from freak accidents. Apart from fatalities, the job's physical labor has resulted in countless injuries like broken bones, fractures, sprains, and more. 

garbage collector is one of the most dangerous jobs

If the job is so dangerous, what keeps people in the occupation?

Even though the job is dangerous, there are many good reasons why people become garbage collectors and continue working in the waste management industry. From liveable salaries to personal freedom, this career path is promising and has many intriguing benefits. The best reasons, however, come straight from the mouths of garbage workers, which is why we decided to interview several. 

jersey specialty hauling team

Name: Anthony

Company: Jersey Specialized Hauling

Anthony literally grew up in the waste business. Starting as a garbage collector at 16 to make some extra cash, he eventually opened up his own garbage and recycling collection business years later, which he sold a few years later. He then went on to become the General Manager for a large private hauler in NJ where he spent many years. He recently started his own business again re-entering the roll-off industry with his son Nick and partner Vinny. When asked why he started in the garbage business, he said "my friends were doing it and making good money" and that was reason enough. It was the perfect job for the average young man–physically demanding, no degree needed, and provided a reliable paycheck. 

"The job is recession proof, pandemic proof"

Anthony's second favorite part about his job is dealing with people, but the first part? The money. He stressed how "the job is recession proof, pandemic proof" and how "no matter what is going on in the world, people need garbage picked up". And he's right. Garbage collection was one of the main jobs that actually saw an increase in business during the pandemic, as people stayed home and produced more waste. 

Another thing that stuck out when talking to Anthony was his calm demeanor, even when describing a day on the job that sounded more like a TV series plot than real life. When asked what his craziest day on the job was, he said he "couldn't think of anything normal", and went on to describe how he aided the police in the investigation of a woman's murder, all because he found her pocketbook in one of the dumpsters he was servicing. 

Without Anthony, the woman may have never received justice.

A testament to the good hearts of many sanitation workers, Anthony went out of his way to call all the numbers in the pocketbook. He spoke to the woman's boss, found out she was missing, and later informed police of her last moves written in the book, which helped them solve the investigation. Without Anthony, the woman may have never received justice. 

manager of DumpStor Richmond, VA

Name: Ray

Company: DumpStor

Ray has had a less traditional route into the waste management industry, as he found an intriguing job opportunity, after spending 15 years serving in the army. His military background and experience made him the best choice for managing operations at DumpStor of Richmond (VA), a franchise location with the industry-leading dumpster rental company, DumpStor.  As an Operations Manager, Ray focuses on delivering exceptional value and customer experience to dumpster rental customers in the Richmond Metro area.   

He is well versed in the operations side of the business and the physical, hands-on aspect that comes with the job. Understanding all areas of the business is paramount to a smooth running operation. Ray’s day could have him in the truck completing deliveries, managing driver schedules, fielding customer inquiries, to networking with business-to-business customers.   

With a whopping $91 billion dollars produced in the waste management industry yearly, big might be an understatement.

One of his takeaways from transitioning into the waste industry was that he was "surprised by how big the industry actually is, and all the different companies and parts of the industry". $91 billion dollars produced in the waste management industry yearly, big might be an understatement. His hopes for the future include building on the success DumpStor of Richmond has experienced and helping support and grow locations as the DumpStor network continues to expand.  His answer is just one example of how gigantic this field is and how it is constantly growing, as are the people who work in it. Best of luck to Ray and his team at DumpStor on their continued success!

Smale jr truck in forest

Name: Donny 

Company: Smale Jr.

Like many workers in waste management, Donny comes from a line of sanitation workers that is three generations deep. After his grandfather passed away in the mid-80s, Donny inherited his residential and commercial waste collection business. He eventually began doing roll-off rentals, which he does to this day. 

It's not uncommon to stay in the industry for one’s entire life.

It's not uncommon to stay in the industry for one’s entire life. Donny's grandpa stayed in the business until he died in 1985. His father started his garbage business in 1976 and still drives every day. And now, Donny has his own business as well. 

Although introduced to residential hauling through his family, it was his friend who turned him onto the roll-off dumpster business. After seeing how much money he made from doing a single hauling job for his friend, he saved up enough money to buy a used truck and began renting boxes until he could afford to buy his 20-yard dumpster. 

"If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself!

When speaking to Donny, he beamed nothing but gratefulness and a love for his job. He boasted how much he appreciated the independence of owning his own dumpster rental and hauling company, repeating the age-old phrase–"if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself!". He also wanted to shout out the drivers as the "most loyal" in the business.

For Donny, maintaining the image of his business is important because "it's all you have" as a small business owner. He makes sure to put in the work so that his customers are happy, which means he often works 90-hour weeks and puts "90% of [his] life into the trash business because that's where [his] heart is". His main takeaway from the job? A good one to live by–"treat everybody the same." 

Gulf Coast Hauling

Name: Greg

Company:  Gulf Coast Dumpsters / Gulf Coast Recycling Systems

Similar to many other garbage workers, Greg started by driving a garbage truck in New York when he was 18. He transitioned through many roles, like driver, dispatcher, and even sales, before he started his own garbage company. He sold this company and started a new business in Florida in 2017, which he now runs and manages. 

Greg's favorite part of his role is dealing with customers directly. He found that a customer will always be "more comfortable talking to the owner, and a lot of repeat customers come back because of this communication." From homeowners to contractors to commercial business owners, Greg has found that friendliness is the key to growing a successful client base, no matter who you're talking to. 

In a world where the person on the other side of the phone may not be an actual human, good customer service drives Greg and his business.

Good customer service is so important to him because he realized "in a lot of different industries, people aren't getting it". In a world where the person on the other side of the phone may not be an actual human, providing good customer service drives Greg and his business. It also helps him stay afloat with the competition that seems to increase daily. 

He recalls differences between now and the past and how "it's a much more competitive industry now. With capital expense being higher between fuel and the equipment" it is more difficult now than ever for smaller garbage companies to stay in business. 

"Some of the hardest working people work in the waste management industry"

It's also hard to find good sanitation workers. "Some of the hardest working people work in the waste management industry," he says "You don't start working in at 35, 40. It's gotta be in your blood. It's stressful, and it takes a lot out of you, and not everyone is built for that". Greg realizes that without a strong front line of employees, you can’t be successful in the waste industry. He wanted to shout out some of his strongest and most loyal drivers who have been with him the longest–Frank Settembrino, Sal Flores, and Charles Schiller. 

Sourgum Hauling Operations Lead Mike

Name: Mike

Company: Sourgum Waste

Now the lead of Sourgum's Hauling Operations at just 27, Mike started his career in the waste management industry at the tender age of 16. Needing a way to make money on the books, he was offered a role by his friend's brother and started his first official job washing trucks, running for parts, and doing other odds and ends.

He started taking on more responsibilities and eventually became an Accounts Payable Specialist when the company was acquired. He quickly ran through the ranks and just two years after the acquisition was promoted to Operation Supervisor, a role in which he held for 6 years. After the company was acquired again, he transitioned to Sourgum Waste to take on the Hauling Operations / New Business Development role. 

“They're out on these streets every single day from morning to night and trust me, they are paying attention. If they see something they say something."

When asked about his favorite role, he quickly responded with "supervisor". He stated how much he loved "being responsible for all the routes, having direct communication with every employee and the townships they serviced." A people-person through and through, Mike emphasized how much the garbage industry is really a community job. He refers to garbage workers as the neighborhood watch. “They're out on these streets every single day from morning to night and trust me, they are paying attention. If they see something they say something. I've had drivers wait for kids that couldn't get in their home after getting off the bus until their parents got home."  

"Unfortunately, I've been exposed to every bad situation many times. We have dealt with many accidents, injuries, and even fatalities" 

Even at his young age, Mike has held almost every job the waste management industry offers. From servicing bins, driving the truck, welding equipment, and managing operations, Mike has truly seen and done it all. When asked about his craziest day on the job, he responded with something shocking "Unfortunately, I've been exposed to every bad situation many times. We have dealt with many accidents, injuries, and even fatalities" 

Although the experiences haven't always been positive, and some have been outright traumatizing, Mike plans to spend the rest of his life in this industry. "At this point, it's all I know," he says "The way I think and what I do has completely changed. It becomes embedded in you. I like to say, I have my Associates from Brookdale, but I have my Masters in garbage."

"People often think people who go to work in this industry are low class when that's just not the case at all.

Mike also wants the stereotypes around garbage work and the waste industry put to rest. He notes that "people often think people who go to work in this industry are low class when that's just not the case at all. Some people believe it's the worst job you can possibly get, but I believe it's an awesome job! Pay is good, benefits are good, and you're not micromanaged." 

When asked what he's learned the most doing this job, he responded with praise for the work ethic needed to do this job–"you have to be dedicated, loyal, and hungry to do this job. Rain or shine, 0 degrees or 100, these guys are out on trucks from 5 am to 5 pm doing physical labor, standing on a steel step and holding a steel handle every day." 

Join us in showing your appreciation to the people who have our backs, and our trash

All in all, garbage workers are valuable members of our communities that deserve their accolades. They are also some of the hardest workers in the American economy and risk their lives to make sure our neighborhoods and cities are safe, clean, and liveable for all. This Garbage Worker’s Week, join us in showing your appreciation to the people who have our backs, and our trash.

Looking for environmentally friendly waste services?

Sourgum Waste not only provides you with the best service at the best price, but we are also committed to sustainability. We divert waste from landfills whenever possible and plant a tree for every order placed through us.

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