We squabble over recycling at my house. I see no reason why the pizza boxes can’t go into the blue bin, but my husband says I’m wrong, that the melted cheese and grease stains make them unsalvageable. He frets that the plastic windows in his junk mail envelopes will contaminate the waste stream, so he withholds them. Plastic cherry-tomato cartons have to go into the landfill too, according to him. But, I retort, they bear a triangle with a “1” in it. What’s that, if not proof they can be salvaged?
Sometimes, on cold Sunday nights, putting out the garbage, dark thoughts overtake both of us. What if it’s all a sham? What if, we fantasize, the city really buries the old newspapers and empty cereal boxes and beer bottles and tin cans and egg cartons we hoard for the blue bin?
I resolve to see with my own eyes what, if anything, among my trash is being transmogrified.
The trail begins in a large dispatching room in the city operations station located a half-block north of Miramar Road, just east of 805. Almost every City of San Diego truck that picks up residential garbage — recyclable and nonrecyclable — spends the night here, some 177 vehicles. Each day they fan out for neighborhoods that stretch from San Ysidro to Rancho Bernardo. Most of their drivers are men of African-American and Hispanic heritage, and when they surge through the doors at 6:30 a.m., they often emit comic “moos.” These give way to a baritone rumble of joking and chitchat. The supervisor of the high-spirited herd on this morning is an unflappable woman named Phyllis; she’s wearing a blue windbreaker over her gray polo shirt and slacks. A black felt beret trimmed in a leopard-print fabric protects her against the dawn chill. Many of the men wear baseball caps. The backs of their bright orange sweatshirts proclaim, “Customer Satisfaction Our #1 Priority.”
Although most of the drivers know their routes by heart, each man picks up a route book every morning. This is fine with Wayne Allison, the veteran driver with whom I’ll be riding. Allison likes being free of worry about misplacing the book. Not that he seems sloppy about any aspect of his professional life. Allison sets his alarm for 4:30 every workday so he can leave his home near 61st and Imperial by 5:00. That gets him to the yard by 5:25 — more than an hour before the morning’s muster. He doesn’t like to feel rushed when he’s readying his truck for the day, reviewing the predrive checklist. “We try to make sure everything is working. To make sure we have a decent piece of equipment out on the street,” he tells me. Often he drives his vehicle through the on-site truck wash to ensure it looks presentable. “Another reason I get here so early is because that way I don’t have to mess with traffic,” he adds. “ ’Cause when you have to mess with traffic, you don’t feel like going out and driving all day.”
Allison has 6 children and 12 grandchildren, but he looks too young to be a patriarch. He moves with the quickness of a man younger than his 56 years. Deep-set eyes and a trim mustache are two strong features in his handsome face. He grew up on a farm near Columbus, Ohio, and first came to San Diego in 1966 for the Navy. He started working for the city in 1982. Ten years later, an entanglement with drugs stole two years of his life. But Allison says God gave him a second chance, and he started driving a recycling truck around 1994.
Today the city uses the same types of trucks to pick up both recyclable discards and trash bound for the landfill. Allison thinks most drivers prefer the regular trash routes. They require more stops per street. (“Everybody puts out trash. Not everyone puts out recycling.”) So the routes are more compact. Moreover, trash pickup is weekly, in contrast to the biweekly recycling pickup, so the trash drivers must learn their way around only half the number of neighborhoods.
Over the years, however, Allison has come to dislike the way the trash smells. Recycled items produce little stench. All the recycling trucks are automated, which keeps any unpleasant odors more than an arm’s length away from the truck operator. Allison suggests that the automation is a mixed blessing. Years ago, when he worked on a two-man trash truck as a “swamper,” the guy who jumps off and dumps the cans into the back of the vehicle, he loved the way he could interact with people along his route. Commanding an automated one-man truck is lonelier. But it’s never boring, he tells me.
We’re in the roomy cab of Allison’s truck. The sun is climbing up the eastern quadrant of a cloudless sky, and Allison elaborates on this topic. “There’s so many obstacles in a day. It’s just like parking your car.” You can do it a thousand times, and each time will be different. “The driver always has to be on the alert — for anything and everything,” he continues. “There’s always dangers. Driving down an alley or something, you’ve got to pay attention to the whole perimeter.” Tree limbs, power lines, cars, even children’s basketball hoops are potential targets for collision.
Allison’s routes take him all over the city: to the South Bay, Barrio Logan, La Jolla, Tierrasanta. This morning we’ll work in the section of Clairemont where the streets pay homage to mountains. Pausing near Mount Everest, Allison leaps out of the cab and opens up the top of his truck’s hopper, secured during rides on the freeway to keep any contents from blowing out. Slipping behind the wheel again, he comments that he’s never felt confused by the daily switch between the right-hand drive of the recycling truck and the left-hand drive of his personal vehicle. Allison demystifies for me the daunting array of instruments around the driver’s seat. Many are redundant sets of buttons. A driver also can use a joystick to perform the basic operations: extending the mechanical arm, grabbing the bin, raising and flipping it upside down over the hopper, returning it to the pavement, and releasing it. But Allison turns up his nose at the joystick. “I’m a button man.”