Life On The Streets

Rich's Route Pennsbury and Pocopson Townships 5:00 a.m. An hour I don't often witness. As I arrive at the yard, Rich is in his truck and ready to go. He arrived at 4:30 a.m. and has already spoken with his route supervisor and given the truck the once-over. I am just beginning to wake up.

We start out on the route. As the day begins, Rich tries to cover the stops that are just off of a busy four-lane road. Traffic is non-existent at this hour which makes collection much easier.

Between stops, I ask about his work history. Rich got involved in the trash industry just over ten years ago. His company name has changed several times, but the routes remain the same. Before working as a trash/recycle driver, Rich drove a tractor-trailer for 22 years. He switched jobs to be closer to home.

He tells me a little bit about today's recycle route, which he's been running for more than four years. Six weeks previously, Rich started doing the route with a new single-person recycling truck. Some drivers prefer the two-person truck, but Rich believes his is more practical. And he enjoys the solitude.

Years ago, before recycling had started, Rich collected this area's trash. Initially, he was impressed with the recycling program's impact on the weekly trash flow. Now, however, participation has decreased.

7:00 a.m. Despite the drop in participation, people seem to grasp the rules of recycling. Contamination is low and the strangest items we've come across are clothes hangers and a metal cooking pot.

10:00 a.m. Rich has many interesting thoughts on recycling and his work, which he relates between stops. Although it seems obvious, I ask how he feels about his job. "I like all of it," he said. "Especially making sure the customer is satisfied."

He prides himself on customer satisfaction and knowing all of his stops. He is often approached by customers with questions. During warmer weather, he may ask customers if their service has been satisfactory.

Rich has an incredible memory. For each stop, he remembers when they last put out recyclables, whether contamination has ever been a problem and how frequently recyclables are set out for collection. He can also point out which residences have stopped recycling. Those that participate tend to prepare the recyclables correctly and set out large volumes.

In Rich's opinion, the customers must be reminded of the importance of recycling. At the beginning, customers were enthusiastic; almost everyone recycled. Switching to weekly, same-day service would be one way to boost participation rates, Rich said.

12:00 p.m. The truck, which was partially full at the beginning of the day, has reached capacity. It's time to make our way to the recyclery.

There, the truck is weighed. I watch as Rich unloads the tons of recyclables that he has collected. With its high ceiling, modern equipment and massive quantities of recyclables to be processed, the facility is quite impressive.

2:00 p.m. Once the morning's work has been unloaded and the truck weighed again, we're back on the road to finish the route.

At the first stop, a woman has placed a fish aquarium in her recyclables bin. As Rich puts it with the trash, she comes out of the house. He explains that he can't accept it and she obviously appreciates his help. We continue on our way.

3:00 p.m. Rich has covered the entire route and starts back to the yard. Apart from the day's constant drizzle, collection went well.

After the day's paperwork is delivered and the truck checked out, Rich can end his day. But tomorrow he'll be back in the pre-dawn hours to do it all over again.

Collecting With Ed Pequea and Salisbury Townships 5:00 a.m. Ed is already at work. The day begins with a brief overview of his residential recycling route with his supervisor, Hal Cloud.

Only a month old, the route has already been adjusted since the previous week. Another driver will now cover portions of Ed's former territory.

Although we seem ready to leave the yard, Ed decides to recheck the truck and top off the oil. Now, we're ready to roll.

On the way to the first stop, Ed describes his work history. He has been with BFI for almost two years. Previously, he worked as a driver with a local ice company.

At the first few stops, Ed explains how the route has evolved over a mere three weeks. "On the first couple of runs there was nothing out," he said, "but people are catching on now." Ed can't understand why some customers have chosen not to recycle. In his opinion, more people would recycle if they understood the long-term benefits.

7:00 a.m. After several stops, Ed and his loader discover some minor contamination: cans in plastic bags, corrugated cardboard and cereal boxes. This area's recycling program only collects glass, metals, #l and #2 plastics and paper.

As the day proceeds, I see the vast assortment of items residents place in recycling bins: hubcaps, Styrofoam, house siding, egg crates. Fortunately, today is also garbage day, so Ed and the loader can add the more obvious items to the uncollected trash. Due to the route's length and number of stops, neither the driver nor loader is able to check each individual item for recyclability. Non-recyclable items will be extracted later.

In the past, Ed has driven routes with separate days for trash and recycling pick-up. I ask whether this would change the participation rates. Unlike Rich, he believes same-day service doesn't matter. "If they want to recycle, they recycle."

10:00 a.m. A customer approaches the truck to inquire about the new recycling program. "Is recycling collection monthly or weekly? Since the trash is separate, are there two trucks? When should I place my bin at the curb?"

Ed stops to answer the woman's inquiries. Later, when I ask his favorite aspect of his job, he reveals that it's the daily contact with the customers. He's often approached by residents with questions ranging from pick-up times to rates.

12:00 p.m. Over lunch, Ed and I discuss the many varieties of recycling collection trucks. Ed prefers his own truck - open on both sides so driver and loader can throw the recyclables into the truck. He believes the new trucks, with only one side open and driving capability on both sides, aren't practical. I point out that they might be impractical for his route, since the stops are spread out and driving from the right-hand side is unnecessary. However, one-sided trucks would be more practical on a more populated route.

Once we're back on the road, Ed tells me more about his job. He's proud of his dependability and consistency. He is always on time to work. Above and beyond his job responsibilities, Ed makes a point to help his customers - whether that means going up to the house to collect recyclables the customer forgot to put curbside or tracking down the owner of a lost key.

2:00 p.m. After the last stop, we head toward the local recycling center. I am content to watch as Ed unloads the day's haul. It's amazing to think that, just a month ago, these tons of recyclables would have been buried deep in the earth. Now, they will be processed and reused.

3:00 p.m. As the day's work draws to a close, we pull into the yard. Ed fills up the gas tank, checks the truck and brings in his paperwork. Then he's out on the road yet again; this time, he's headed home.