An electronic listening device planted in the wall of Dr. Jennifer Melfi's office (Tony Soprano's shrink) recorded the following: “Hey, Doc, I've been in the trash business all my life and my old man before me, and my grandfather before him … but those big shots at the National Solid Wastes Management Association [NSWMA] won't even let me join. Bein' the boss is tough, and now I gotta deal with rejection from those punks.”
Fortunately, the waste industry depicted in “The Sopranos” is more make believe than real. Our industry has a rich cultural heritage, gleaned from the first generation Irish, Italians, Jews, Armenians, Dutch and members of many other immigrant groups who have found opportunities in waste collection and disposal when other, more profitable opportunities were closed to them.
Today, however, the waste industry is a $40 billion-plus industry largely populated by well-educated, third and fourth generation owners; managers of both small and independent firms; and large publicly traded companies. These men and women protect public health and the environment, are actively involved in civic activities in the communities in which they live and work, and take understandable offense at being labeled with an untrue and demeaning stereotype. No one wants to be called a thug.
In cities and communities throughout the nation, trash haulers are an important link in “Neighborhood Watch” programs, which help to ensure that neighborhoods are free from crime. These companies and their employees sponsor local sports teams for youngsters, actively support local charities and participate in a host of other civic activities. Public opinion polls routinely rank the trash collector in the top tier of professions held to be honest and trustworthy. Indeed, there are many stories about how these men and women find very valuable items in containers and return them to their rightful owners. A few years ago, a hauler received national news coverage for finding and returning several boxes of gold Academy Awards that somehow found their way into the garbage.
Just as in many legitimate businesses, unfortunately, organized crime has had some influence in our industry. But this was isolated to certain areas of the country and is in no way a reflection of the industry as a whole. Most important, this situation is a remnant of the past. In fact, it was NSWMA members who cooperated with federal and state enforcement officials to oust the cartel in New York City.
NSWMA and its members — through professional programs, activities and deeds — work hard to present a positive image to the public. Our members receive many letters and telephone calls from citizens thanking them for service to the community. But stereotypes are slow to die.
The image of the industry is a major concern to NSWMA and its members. We have struggled during the years with identifying some program or initiative that would eradicate the industry's mob image, which hopefully was held by a relatively small segment of the public. We gave serious consideration to a national image campaign, but the cost was too high. Instead, rather than fighting a stereotype, our advocacy and information efforts focus on our value.
What clearly would be an effective way to help end this stereotype is for shows like “The Sopranos” — with mass media appeal — to stop portraying mobsters (especially Italian) running trash companies.
So here's my choice for the next episode: Tony, Pussy, Sylvio, Juli, Pauli and others in the family get snuffed out in a compactor, made to look like an accident by a rival mob. The Washington, D.C.-based Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cites the trash company for an egregious violation of the Lockout-Tagout Rule, and then shuts down the company. HBO replaces the series with “The Sopranos II,” a series about several young sopranos of Italian descent who are trying to “make it” in the rough and tumble world of international opera.
I know that the thousands of good people who work in the early hours of the day to ensure that our streets, neighborhoods and businesses are kept clean would appreciate this small, but positive, change.
Bruce Parker is the president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Industry Associations and the executive vice president of the National Solid Wastes Management Association.