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On the Map: Odd Jobs - Trash Collector

Republic Services

For many of us, putting the trash out by the road is just another routine in our week. One that might draw complaints from the kids if you ask them to do it, but otherwise doesn’t take much thought.

And that’s exactly why Max Cobb decided to explore the job.  

Today we continue our occassional “On the Map” series with a look at Underappreciated Jobs. Max got into the spirit of the assignment by climbing into a garbage truck to learn more about what cleaning up after everyone is really like.

Trash collection could be one of the oldest professions. And looking at it from the outside, it seems simple, you put the trash out, and eventually it’s taken…

But then what?

Republic Services is a waste collection company in Mount Pleasant. There I met with Matt Biolette, a former driver and current municipal services manager for northwestern Michigan. He told me there is a lot more to waste collection than meets the eye.

“A traditional solid waste drivers job is really weather, and then you compound that with the length of time that you have to be in it. So his door is always open, that’s the same whether it’s raining, it’s sunny, it’s winter, that door is always open so he builds his layers to get him through the entire day and whatever that weather conditions bringing him.”

Biolette said drivers often start their day at 6am, and by noon there could be a 40 degree temperature change on top of rain or snow.

He said while weather plays a huge role in trash collection, it’s not the only thing drivers need to keep an eye on. Biolette said drivers have to constantly be aware of their surroundings. They’re operating enormous trucks with buckets, compactors, and a large panel of buttons.

“The other difficult part of that job is you’re dealing with everyone else around you so that trucks a big target, you know, and if someone's not paying attention they’re texting on their phone driving down the road and their cars shifting to this edge, they’re going to connect with that truck.”

Biolette said having a good understanding of the routes they’re running is also important for drivers. Certain locations can pose challenges depending on the model of the truck.

“When he came out on that main road he tucked his bucket because he was going on a thoroughfare road, there was a hedgeline on this side of the street that you couldn’t see until you got the front of that truck out passed the hedgeline; well his bucket would have been three feet into the road at that point. So he has to know what streets he’s coming up on because if that road is here and his last stop is here, he’s got to know that because there’s that wire there and there’s that wire there and he’s got to know how far he is from those wires before he touches that bucket.”

I couldn’t resist asking Biolette the question on all of our minds… do drivers get to keep cool stuff they find?

“Anything that ends up super cool at the curb, there are people that ride the garbage routes before we ever get there, and that’s where a lot of furniture and things disappear to I mean there’s a lot of people that like to redo furniture. We traditionally have an anti-scavenging policy which means we don’t take things away from the routes, now does occasionally someone show up with some oddball thing absolutely.”

Biolette said operating a garbage truck requires extensive training. He said there is typically a week of classroom training and four weeks of riding with another driver before new drivers can be on their own. Even then, he said it generally takes drivers about six months to get comfortable running their routes.

Collectors drive different routes everyday and typically work nine to ten hour shifts.

“Mount Pleasant is split up between four days, so I come out here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then my Friday route is more out by Sheridan.”

That’s Chris Knap, a residential truck driver with Republic Services. He said Mount Pleasant’s coverage area covers quite a bit of real estate.

“Our little subdivision covers everything from, we actually go north of here to Evart, and as far south as just north of Grand Rapids.”

Knap said by now he knows his routes like the back of his hand. He’s even able to modify a route based on his knowledge of the neighborhood.

“After while of running it you figure out which streets don’t typically put trash out and you form your route around that.”

Matt Biolette said the best part of the job is knowing your community well. He said after running a route for so long, you know where all the best places in town are.

“I used to run a lakeshore route, so I knew which street I could park at where I could have an unblocked view of Lake Michigan for 15-20 minutes to eat my lunch. And you get to see a lot of different things throughout the course of the day, I mean drivers are the eyes and ears of our community, they help our public service workers identify things that are out of place, we from time to time help local law enforcement by removing containers from homes that need to be inspected for possible drug abuse situations, things of that nature.”

Biolette said trash collection is an expensive industry.Trucks alone cost upwards of 400-thousand dollars a piece. There are roughly 40 trucks in the Isabella area fleet, but in total they have roughly 19,000.

He said people can make a decent living from waste collection, earning anywhere from 50 to 80 thousand dollars a year.

Bottom line, without garbage collectors our communities would be much messier and stinkier places to live. We tip our hat to these underappreciated workers. And we’re happy to put our own Michigan waste collectors, On The Map.