Excerpt from Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Garbage Land

On the Secret Trail of Trash

by Elizabeth Royte

Garbage Land
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2005, 320 pages
    Aug 2006, 336 pages

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Most people don't think of garbage collection as particularly dangerous work. It may be dirty, boring, and strenuous, but compared to the potential perils of, say, coal mining, the risks in heaving trash seem minor. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies refuse collection as "high-hazard" work, along with logging, fishing, driving a taxicab, and, yes, mining. While the fatality rate for all occupations is 4.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, garbage collectors die at a rate of 46 per 100,000. In fact, they're approximately three times more likely to be killed on the job than police officers or firefighters.

Six days a week New York's Strongest—who along with New York's Finest (the cops) and New York's Bravest (its firefighters) constitute the city's essential uniformed services—operate heavy machinery and heave ten thousand pounds in snow and ice, in scorching heat and driving rain. Cars and trucks rip past them on narrow streets. Danger lurks in every sack: sharp metal and broken glass, protruding nails and wire. And then there are the liquids. Three New York City san men have been injured and one killed by acid bursting from hoppers. It takes about a year for a san man's body to become accustomed to lifting five to six tons a day, apportioned into seventy-pound bags. "You feel it in your legs, your back, your shoulders," Murphy told me.

Still, plenty of people want the job. The starting pay is $30,696, with an increase to $48,996 after five years. The health benefits are great, the scavenging superb, and you can retire with a pension after twenty years. With a good winter, one with plenty of snow to plow (in New York, DSNY is responsible for snow removal, which often involves overtime pay), a senior san man can earn $80,000. Thirty thousand applicants sat for the written portion of the city's sanitation test the last time it was offered.

At eight o'clock, truck CN191 turned east onto my block. I saw my downstairs neighbor close our gate and turn with his German shepherd toward the park. "We'll get ten tons today," predicted Sullivan, tossing a black bag into the hopper and cranking the handle. Nine tons had been the norm, but now that the city wasn't recycling plastic and glass, that extra weight landed in his and Murphy's truck.

We moved up the street, about three brownstones at a time, looking for breaks between parked cars. This type of collection was called "house to house." In Manhattan, where high-rises are the norm, san men did "flats," and a truck could pack out after clearing just one or two big buildings. A route in Manhattan might have just three short legs (called ITSAs, though no one remembered why), a route in the lowlands of Brooklyn several dozen.

At last, CN191 parked in front of my building: a brownstone divided into three apartments that shelter six adults, three children, two dogs, two cats, and one fish. (The fish was mine, and it generated very little solid waste: one packet of fish food, I've discovered, lasts three years.) I was nervous. Had we put the barrels—three for putrescible waste, one for metal, and one for paper—in a convenient place? Were the lids off? They were supposed to be on, but they were a pain, and the san men didn't like them. Lids slowed things down. I wondered if someone had dropped a Snapple bottle or a packet of poodle poop into our barrels reserved for paper or metal. Sullivan and Murphy didn't care, but the guys on recycling weren't supposed to collect "contaminated" material, and Burrafato, in theory, could scribble a summons for it. I wondered if my trash was too heavy or too smelly or contained anything identifiably mine. Would Sullivan make some crack about the stained napkins and place mats I was tossing? Would Murphy think it coldhearted to throw out a child's artwork?

From Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte. Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Royte. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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