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Refuse, sanitation, or garbage—call it what you will, collecting and removing it is a job that needs to be done in every North American town and city. Depending upon the town, the work is done either by a member of the public works department or by an independent company.

Like postal workers, sanitation workers perform their jobs in all kinds of weather. They must be strong and fit and willing to do a lot of walking, hefting, and driving. They must also be willing to put up with waste. This means all forms of garbage, whether neatly placed in bags or loosely tossed in receptacles. If the garbage has been sitting for days, natural components have started decomposing, which produces unpleasant odors.

As a sanitation worker, you need to be polite to the customer who complains that you don't put the cans back in the right place or that you missed some of the garbage. Others will ask you to pick up something you are not legally allowed to take, and you have to be firm but polite when you decline.

Driving a garbage route means a different set of neighborhoods every day, starting at an early hour and usually ending in the early afternoon. Most garbage pick up is done in the mornings, before school buses and morning commuters crowd the streets. Of course, this means you might be loud enough to wake people, especially in warmer weather when people tend to keep their windows open.

“If you're interested in what I do, just watch when the truck comes down your street. I love my job,” Helen Milne told students at Canada's Turner Fenton Campus. “There is no stress. The garbage doesn't yell at you and that makes a difference. I used to work in an office and never thought I'd be doing this. It's not for everyone, but I enjoy it.”

When drivers have completed their route, they report to a processing center where their trucks are unloaded. In Chicago, for example, the trucks are dropped off at the end of the day, and a second shift unloads them, processes the waste, then cleans and preps the trucks for the following morning. These collection points handle the garbage according to town and state guidelines, recycling what can be salvaged and handling the rest with the least harmful impact to the environment.

Drivers no longer just drive. These days the three-man crew has been gradually reduced to two-man or even one-man operations. Therefore, the driver not only needs to know how to operate and maintain a truck but must also be physically fit enough to lift heavy cans of refuse all day long. It has been estimated that garbage collectors walk some twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers) a day on a typical route.

It's important to note that there can be some danger involved in this job. Between 1980 and 1992, 450 garbage workers lost their lives in job-related accidents involving their trucks. Additionally, some have been injured or killed as a result of some of the refuse they handle. All municipalities have stringent requirements regarding what may or may not be collected by these operators, but some people flaunt the laws, and it's the men and women who remove the refuse who suffer. Over the last few years, a growing number of injuries were the result of improperly disposed medical waste, including used syringes. According to a 1995 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2,236 instances of lost workdays nationally because of injuries to garbage collectors working for private haulers. This figure does not even include injuries or lost days for garbage collectors working for county and city collection services. Drivers and collectors have to be careful, even with bins full of recycled material. Glass can break, and plastic jugs can have sharp edges.

Today, modern technology has come into play to help garbage collectors perform their jobs more efficiently. Los Angeles, for example, has a massive new computer complex set up to monitor street and traffic conditions as well as construction projects. New routes can be mapped out for drivers so they can avoid becoming part of the typical Los Angeles traffic snarl. The garbage trucks are being outfitted with terminals, which will provide up-to-the-minute information and instructions.


Towns that provide garbage collection services hire workers like they do for most other positions. The candidate must fill out an application, pass a physical, and endure a background check. To operate a garbage truck, you will need a CDL. The town will not train you for this test; you will have to possess a CDL when you apply for the job.

If you buy your own truck and become an independent contractor, there are many different vehicles to choose from. In just about every case, some manner of commercial license will be required, and you will have to check with your town and state to find out the specific requirements.


Given the amount of waste generated by Americans every day, there will remain a strong need for garbage drivers and collectors in the years to come. In the book One Hundred Jobs, a sanitation worker told author Ron Howell, “This is the best job I've ever had with the city.” The worker added that he knew he was in a good position when people in suits walked up and asked him how to apply for a job as trash collector.

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