In the Thick of It

When Robin Nagle, an anthropology professor at New York University, New York, recently gave a series of talks, she wore clothes not from one of the city's chichi boutiques, but garments she had plucked from the trash. Nagle came across the high-end fashion finds in a black plastic bag while moonlighting for New York's Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Although she isn't planning on leaving the university to be a full-time garbage collector, she took on the role to gain insight into New York's seemingly endless waste stream and its human cost.

“The most important uniformed force on the streets of New York is sanitation,” Nagle says, noting her interest in consumption habits and the people who handle the resulting trash. “But when you look at literature on urban studies, urban anthropology, planning and things like that, there's nothing about sanitation workers as a workforce, as a community, as a group of people with a civic identity.” She decided to fill the gap by writing a book that explores the underappreciated profession.

Since 1995, Nagle has taught the course “Garbage in Gotham: the Anthropology of Trash,” for which she brings in a guest speaker from DSNY. For her book, however, she decided to delve deeper into the garbage world. She began by slinging trash herself and talking with current workers and retirees. She admits getting hired as sanitation worker, a job sought after in New York for its lifelong pension, is not as easy as it may sound.

“You have to go through an amazing set of hoops to actually get hired,” Nagle says. “But I never asked anyone for help because I wanted to know how do I, as Joanna Q. Public, become a sanitation worker.” She was hired in August after completing a written examination (along with 40,000 other candidates), a physical test and a series of medical and psychological exams.

During her active duty with the department, part of which she chronicled in an online diary for, she was most surprised by how physically demanding the job was and the quality of trash abandoned on Manhattan's sidewalks. Items she saw included cashmere sweaters and unmarred tables. “When you think of the need in the world and the waste, it doesn't make sense,” she says.

Nagle worked as a sanitation worker for three weeks and still holds the title. She is currently on leave from DSNY, but she intends to return. “When I'm driving 13 tons of garbage to a relay station, or dumping recyclables in their proper places, I really feel like I'm doing something that matters,” she says. And just imagine the money she'll save on clothes.

Nagle's book, tentatively titled “We All Wear Green,” is scheduled for release in the next 18 months.