By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Trash collectors pack it all in
Men uses five sense to pick up city's garbage
Bill Sailors empties garbage from a residential home into the packer during his route.


About the series: Every day average citizens serve Hall County in an important but often overlooked and underappreciated capacity. But once the service is slowed, delayed, canceled or even stopped, then complaints arise. This is the first in a monthly series of stories examining the daily lives of the unnoticed workforce.

The dawn is just starting to break as crews jump in their trucks and take off to their districts.

Rick Phillips takes a few moments to make sure his vehicle is fit for the road before driving away. On the way to Skelton Road in Gainesville, the garbage truck passes two school buses.

“Good, hope they’re going to Willow Ridge,” his partner Bill Sailors said, mumbling.

Phillips works as an equipment operator, driving a garbage truck or a “packer” with the Gainesville Solid Waste Division. He started working for the division three years after retiring from his position as director of the Hall County Animal Shelter. This week, he and his crew are conducting trash pickups — which are normally on Mondays — Thursday because of the Labor Day holiday.

The early morning hours before school starts are challenging for the trash collectors as they exercise extreme caution while children wait by the side of the roads for their buses. By the time crews complete the first of the neighborhoods on their route, most of the buses have come and gone, allowing the crew to move a bit quicker through their route.

Phillips explains his No. 1 and 2 priorities are safety.

With a garbage truck “even a bump is ugly,” he said.

The truck is called a packer because it’s able to crush collected garbage down, making room for more. A clawed blade powerful enough to make “mush” out of a sofa pulls the trash inside the truck.

The packer is a well-respected member of the team.

“It’s a responsibility, an awesome responsibility,” Phillips said. “This big girl empty is about 35,000 pounds. That’s about four times the weight of that little truck right there.”

Phillips gestured toward one of the two “scooters” that accompany him on the route. Scooters move quickly through side streets and narrow roadways that the packer isn’t suited for.

Four days a week, Phillips and his crew — consisting of himself, two scooters and a “toter,” — collect the trash from nearly 1,000 homes on their route. The division serves about 6,000 customers, 3,000 a day two days a week.

By the end of the shift, Phillips said the truck is usually about 10 tons heavier.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, individuals produced more than 40 pounds of waste each day in 2011. A figure that’s easy to believe after a short trip through one Gainesville neighborhood.

Each house has at least a few full bags of trash waiting at the curb. It is Sailors’ job to pick them all up.

Sailors was hired as a temp and has been working as a toter with the department for six months. He hangs on the back of the packer while it rolls from house to house and tosses the bags into the back. His job is nothing if not physically demanding, but Sailors just shrugs and said he’s used to it.

Phillips laughs and said when he started as a toter he lost 82 pounds in three months just from “chasing the truck.”

While there’s no doubt the work provides good exercise, crew members all face certain health risks in the line of duty. They could easily be exposed to illness through biological and animal waste, cut by broken glass or poked by an improperly discarded hypodermic needle.

Phillips said being a trash collector requires the use of all five senses.

“Sounds like someone had a party,” Rick Phillips said, laughing as glass bottle-filled garbage bags were loaded into the back of the truck by a scooter.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell what’s inside the bags just from listening. A clank warns the trash collectors to be careful of broken glass.

Phillips relayed a joke he heard on the radio one morning. He said he couldn’t help laughing when he heard the DJ talking about how the garbage man knows more about you than your doctor. In a way, he said, the joke wasn’t far off.

Just from picking up a person’s trash, collectors can guess what a person’s favorite food or drink might be.

Sometimes people throw away more telling, personal items.

“We found some old letters the other day from Pearl Harbor,” Sailors said. “We got ’em. There were some from the military, dated ’39, ’43, ’44, something like that.”

Phillips said over the years he’s kept a few things, like a 180-year-old family Bible, that just didn’t feel right to throw away.

“It just amazes me why someone would throw something like that away,” Phillips said.