One man’s trash is another man’s, well, job.
Starting at 6 a.m. on weekday mornings, one can find Waste Connections employee Gabe Duarte, 43, making his way through the quiet streets of residential neighborhoods.
On Wednesday, the garbage truck was about the only thing making noise in an east Vancouver neighborhood as Duarte collected each home’s week’s worth of trash.
A pink, watermelon-scented, tree-shaped air freshener dangled from the ceiling of the cab, in which Duarte navigates from the right side. He stopped at one out of about 930 stops that he would need to complete before his shift was over. Duarte used a joy stick that controls a mechanical arm on the right side of the truck, which extends, clasps the gray garbage cans with a claw, then elevates and dumps the waste into the truck. The little tree, which had apparently lost its scent, jolted around as the entire truck shook from the maneuver.
With the windows up and air conditioning blasting — the high for the day was projected at 97 degrees — the smell, surprisingly, wasn’t terrible. In fact, Duarte said the smelly part of the job is post-collection, when he’s at the dump.
“I get the dirtiest at the dump. There’s these chutes you have to clean out behind the truck. You open those up and it’s just filled with garbage juice. You step in it,” he said. “That smell, I don’t think I ever get used to. You try the best you can to wipe it off but it just lingers.”
He keeps his garbage juice-drenched work shoes quarantined in a bucket at home.
Back in the truck, a camera enables him to see what he’s doing.
“This camera, you can’t see all the way inside of the garbage can. You just gotta do it a few times … after a while, you get the feeling when it’s empty,” Duarte said.
Duarte has had this particular route — which includes a few affluent cul-de-sacs — for the last three years. In his almost 15 years with Waste Connections, it was a route he had to work up to. The neighborhood affords wider streets. Navigating narrow streets with lots of vehicles can pose problems for a large truck.
“When I first started, I was doing recycling. Then a garbage route opened up. It was in the alleyways,” Duarte said as the truck made loud whirring noises as it emptied a bin. “A lot of people didn’t want it because alleyways are real narrow and there’s a lot of hazards in there. I was in the alleyways for about seven years or so and then this position opened up.”
While much the job has become automated, creating a safer environment than the days when people (called “shaggers”) had to ride along the back and manually collect the bins, there are still many hazards. Waste Connections still has about 10 routes that require shaggers, according to District Manger Derek Ranta.
In a survey released by the website CareerCast.com last month, garbage collector was ranked 175th out of 220 in a list of careers. It measures work environments, stress and growth. A garbage collector’s overall work environment is considered very poor while the stress is high. The job growth projection largely comes from the high turnover.
Duarte, a Los Angeles native, never set out to be a garbage collector.
“It wasn’t on my priority list. I wasn’t like, ‘Man, I can’t wait to do a garbage job.’ I was working at Lowe’s Home Improvement. A friend of ours said they were hiring at Waste Connections and I just applied,” Duarte said. “I got it. But two weeks into it, I wasn’t expecting to stay long. I mean it’s physically demanding. I came home, and I was done. But I stuck it out, got my CDL (commercial driver’s license), and was able to get my own route. That lightened up the physical aspect of it.”
Short employment is a common industry problem, including at Waste Connections. They try to keep turnover at 10 to 15 percent a year, according to Ranta, the district manager. The business has lost some senior employees to retirement, and has struggled to keep younger employees.
“We’re going through a change of generations right now,” explained Ranta. “The old generation was kind of, ‘work hard, work as many hours as you need to feed your family and do everything else you can.’ And now we’re migrating to a generation that is really a 40-hour generation. But it’s a very physical job, so if you’re putting 30 years in this industry, you notice it in your joints and everything else, so it’s hard.”
Routes at Waste Connections are seniority based and are acquired through a union bidding process. Drivers who put the time in can work their way to more desired routes, from alleyways to more spacious neighborhoods or commercial routes. Not that there still aren’t hazards.
“Being a large truck in a residential world is a challenge. In a week, we’re going to have kids off of school, so they’ll be out in the streets,” Ranta said.
At least those children might actually see Duarte. Taking the trash out is just another mundane chore to do — we all set out our waste and head to our obligations without much of a second thought.
“I had one customer come up to me, they’re like, ‘Do you think this is a thankless job?’ I thought about it, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, at times.’ I think that people don’t really appreciate it until we’re shut down for two weeks and their garbage is piling up in their garage.
“I think there’s always that time where you’re thinking, ‘Man, I don’t get paid enough for this,’ ” said Duarte, who’s paid $24 an hour. “But that’s probably in any job.”
12115 N.E. 99th St., Vancouver; wcnorthwest.com
Revenue: Local revenue for 2018 was $125 million, according to Waste Connections District Manager Derek Ranta, which comes from “a combination of our collection system and transfer stations in Clark County.”
Employees: 385 in Clark County (including contractors). That includes 150 drivers.
Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Outlook: The bureau expects employment of hand laborers and material movers to grow 7 percent through 2026, due to the need to replace workers who leave the occupation. The annual mean wage of refuse and recyclable material collectors in the Hillsboro-Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area in May 2018 was $47,180 or $22.68 an hour. Gabe Duarte said he makes $24 an hour.
Did You Know?
Waste Connections has three transfer stations where garbage collectors dispose of waste before they’re taken to a landfill, incinerator or recycling. They’re known as Columbia Resource Company, and by site — CTR (Central Transfer); West Vancouver Material Recovery Facility; and Washougal Transfer Station. Waste Connections also owns a hog fuel grinding company called Triangle Resources in Camas.
Waste Connections, which has headquarters in Houston, purchased the operation in Vancouver from Browning Ferris Industries, now Republic Services, in 1997. BFI had purchased the disposal group the year prior from the Leichner family.
Source: Derek Ranta, Waste Connections district manager
WORKING IN CLARK COUNTY
Working in Clark County, a brief profile of interesting Clark County business owners or a worker in the public, private, or nonprofit sector. Send ideas to Lyndsey Hewitt:
firstname.lastname@example.org; fax 360-735-4598; phone 360-735-4550.