They look like a pod of sleeping white whales at 5:30 on this cold Thursday morning. Then, one by one, yellow eyes start blinking. Jacksonville’s all-white garbage trucks are firing up in the motor pool, roused by drivers preparing to feed the diesel beasts vast quantities of fresh garbage.

Just next door to this city complex on the city’s Westside, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Officers gas up their cruisers before patrolling the dark and often dangerous streets. But the men riding the garbage trucks are more likely to be killed on the job than the men in the cruisers. Garbage/recycling collector was the seventh-most fatal occupation in the country in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Police patrolman ranks 10th.

About 20 men — all of them black, all wearing screaming yellow reflective jackets — leave the warm Solid Waste building and head toward their rides. Driver Eric Carter hops into the cab of No. 3193 with so-called garbage “helpers” Billy Pinckney and Samuel Turner Jr., and heads off for a neighborhood north of downtown. This will be one of their messier routes, not like their Monday run through Avondale, where the garbage is as tidy as the RAP houses.

At a residential section of Union Street, Pinckney and Turner leave the cab and speed-walk to garbage cans on the left and right. Black bags fly into the hopper at the back of the truck. Carter steers the white whale into receiving position as the team moves down the street, absolutely hustling. As with all garbage men these days, they work at “day rate,” meaning the sooner they finish their route, the sooner they get off work. It’s the best perk of the job, with job security a close second.

Used to be that a garbage man had the perk of getting to take home the occasional great finds others threw away. “Not anymore,” says Carter. Today, the workers are prohibited from taking anything off a trash pile. “Last Tuesday, someone threw out a whole closetful of brand new clothes,” Carter notes. “It all went to the landfill.”

Sometimes workers find unwanted surprises, like paint cans in plastic bags, syringes and medical waste illegally trashed. Eric Carter’s pet peeve: “You pull the top off the can and there’s a dog,” he says. “That scares you — you don’t know if it’s dead or alive.” (For the record, trashing pets, living or dead, is illegal.)

Carter backs the truck down the dead end of Franklin Street as the bright white EverBank Field sign lights up the pre-dawn horizon. Pinckney and Turner run in front of the truck’s reverse path, visible to Carter in the mirrors. They start grabbing cans and tossing bags as the truck changes direction and pulls out, the maneuver resembling MoJo busting up the middle on a draw play.

Garbage men have fans, too. When Carter and helpers pull up to one house, a young boy rushes out the front door to the trash cans, his mom watching from the porch. He talks excitedly with Pinckney and Turner as they heave his family’s garbage into the maw. The kid pitches in a small box, glad to help. He waves goodbye as his garbage idols make a running jump onto the back of the moving truck. They hang on for half-a-block, leaning out to catch a lung-full of cold, clean air.

A bouquet of decay always trails the truck and smothers their faces, a fusion of everything foul to the olfactory sense. Take sour milk, mix with putrid fish guts, add a dash of vomit, a whiff of bad meat, some odious molds and the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide gas created by decaying organic matter, and you have the aroma of fresh garbage. A cold day depresses the smell, a hot, humid day magnifies it to sensory pain.

“When I first started as a helper, it took me a long time to get used to the smell — a long time,” says Carter. “I couldn’t eat. It messed up my sense of smell, sense of taste. When you get on the back of that truck, you’ll lose some weight. Happens to everybody.”

More Than One Way to Stuff a Hefty

Most of Northeast Florida’s garbage trucks are financed through Enterprise Funds, meaning their costs are covered by fees residents pay, primarily through charges tacked onto property tax bills. But each solid waste authority takes a different approach to managing trash.

The city of Jacksonville only operates trucks in the original pre-consolidation city boundaries, and contracts out the majority of Duval County to three different companies. Private haulers handle most of Nassau, Clay and St. Johns counties, trucking the garbage to private landfills in Georgia. Some towns, like Jacksonville Beach, Atlantic Beach, Green Cove Springs and Fernandina Beach, handle their own garbage, mostly contracting it out to private haulers. St. Augustine and Orange Park handle their own collections, for now.

“At one time, we operated our own trucks and landfill, but we no longer do either of those things,” says St. Johns County Director of Public Works Joe Stephenson. “It’s financially beneficial to the county to contract that work out. The contractors make money at it, but we benefit from their economies of scale.”

In St. Johns County, Advanced Disposal collects from half the county and Republic’s subsidiary Seaboard Waste Systems collects the other half. Waste Management manages the county’s transfer station and trucks all garbage to its private Georgia landfill. Governments pay fees to contractors based on the amount of garbage collected, transporting it to the landfill, and tipping fees to dump it in a landfill. Jacksonville’s Trail Ridge Landfill is the only government-operated landfill in the area.

Governments regularly examine the possibility of bringing waste management back in-house. In St. Johns County, at least, Stephenson says the numbers always favor contracting with private companies that handle lots of garbage from many areas. The county often plays one contractor against another.

“I am a bid-it-out kind of guy. I like to see things go to the marketplace for revalidation,” says Stephenson. He notes that companies, eager to have contracts extended without re-bidding, sweeten the deal by foregoing annual adjustments, or increasing the number of items they recycle. Competitors feel compelled to match the deal, he says, and the county wins.

Nassau County takes a different approach, letting the free market rule. “The county doesn’t have any involvement with it,” says Director of Public Works J. Scott Herring. “I, as an individual property owner, can contract with whomever I chose to get rid of my garbage, whether that’s Advanced Disposal or my neighbor Joe down the street.”

Herring says the hands-off system works well for his mostly rural county. Residents can take their garbage to a convenience center at the closed landfill site, and dump it there for free, a practice on the rise in these tough times.

Outside Green Cove Springs in offices next to the capped Rosemary Hill landfill, Environmental Services Director Alan Altman presides over Clay County’s garbage. Altman, who started working for the county out of high school and resembles a grown-up, thinned-down Bobby from “King of The Hill,” says the county didn’t get into the collection business until 2007.

“We felt it was easier to manage our own program, and if we could get all residents involved, we could cut the costs,” says Altman. “It’s not efficient to have a truck going down one road and only picking up from a few houses. We put out a bid for a company to handle it all and it came in less than what a resident would pay for that privately.”

Clay County isn’t as nimble as private companies because it’s limited by law regarding the procurement process and labor issues. “Our hands are tied sometimes, we can’t get the same lowest bid they can get,” explains Altman. “For example, we can’t do the hardcore negotiations they can in buying 10 new trucks. And private companies can do things more efficiently with employees.”

Clay County also utilizes a transfer station, where garbage arrives in trucks and is loosely sorted before it goes out in semis to its private landfill. The operation, which takes place in a large, three-walled shed, is not unlike dumping your garbage on the kitchen floor to look for a lost ring. A spotter on a front loader pushes the pile of dumped garbage around. “We probably get 20 to 25 loads a day, and the state requires some spotting,” says Altman, through the ever-present aroma of rot. “The spotter’s looking for tires, paint, batteries, biological and medical waste. Those can’t go into the landfill. The more problematic items are ammunition, propane tanks, things that are dangerous.”

Other things are dangerous, too, including trucks in a hurry or helpers hopping on and off a moving truck (which is strictly verboten). Altman says it’s not uncommon for a county agent to follow a truck surreptitiously to make sure the truck services its route correctly, and safely. “These companies pay their employees a day rate,” says Altman. “When they finish the route, they go home. That can cause problems sometimes.”

But Advanced Disposal, the 11-year-old Jacksonville-based company that ended 2010 with $321.8 million in revenue, preaches safety like a TV evangelist. It starts at about 5 every morning. AD Trainer and Compliance Manager Breon Hare, a big man who looks as if he could push the garbage to the front of the truck with his bare hands, runs through the pre-route safety check drivers do on their $250,000 Mac trucks outfitted with a McNeilus garbage package. “They check all lights, tire treads, hydraulics, fluids, all operational elements,” he says. “During the route, you want to keep the loader part in the back clean. If not, it can mess up operations.”

Hare rattles off other safety measures. Dump the hopper regularly so the garbage pile isn’t too high for the helper to reach. Use proscribed hand signals to communicate. Never move the truck if your helpers aren’t in clear view via the mirrors. No riding on the back if the truck is going more than 10 mph or farther than .2 miles.

Of course, no safety program is perfect — as evidenced by city of Jacksonville helpers jumping on their moving truck, or an Advanced Disposal truck observed lumbering by at 20 mph with the helper hanging tight on the back. But Mary O’Brien, chief marketing officer for Advanced Disposal, says private garbage firms typically have better safety records than governmental departments. And while AD doesn’t release its injury statistics, she says their record is measurably better than city’s rate of 1 injury per 60,000 work hours.

“The most serious accident we had recently involved a rear loader and the whole texting and driving issue,” says O’Brien. “The biggest thing is, people aren’t patient, they try to go around our trucks with oncoming traffic,” explains O’Brien.

Garbage men (there appear to be no garbage women, though some are drivers) can also injure themselves, like getting an arm caught in the hopper blade. “The industry doesn’t have a great track record, and in the last five years, we have gotten to a size where trial lawyers look at us as a target,” says AD’s O’Brien. “We’ve put a lot of effort into safety.”

Pay As You Throw

Recycling collectors face the same safety issues as garbage collectors. And if the state Department of Environmental Protection has its way, they’ll be a lot busier in coming years. Though the department’s call to recycle 75 percent of the solid waste stream is a toothless proclamation, some are taking it seriously. Others, not so much.

Recycling saves valuable landfill space and costs. It can also generate revenue — at least in times when recycling commodity markets pay decent returns, which is not the case now, except for aluminum. One of the prime ways DEP suggests local governments up their recycling ratio is to implement a Pay As You Throw (PAYT) system, which requires people who produce more garbage to pay more — a pricing system similar to electric and water bills.

Gainesville has had a PAYT system since 1994, and Joni Rollen, who manages the program, recommends the approach. The city distributes four different-sized garbage carts; the larger the cart, the larger the monthly bill. “There’s no reason why the same thing wouldn’t work in any municipal area,” she says. “If the incentives are good, it will work. And money talks.”

No haulers in Northeast Florida have a PAYT plan in place, and none intends to start one up. Only recently did free-market Nassau County even begin offering recycling pickup, and then only because Advanced Disposal offered it to their garbage customers.

“I’m sure they’ve done their analysis and it’s a good business decision,” says Nassau Public Works Director Herring. As far as PAYT, Herring hasn’t heard of it.

St. Johns County’s Stephenson calls the DEP’s recycling ratio an unfunded mandate. “Somebody in the great city of Tallahassee decided that we should recycle 75 percent of our materials,” he says. “I think that’s a wonderful and lofty objective. But it’s also going to cost someone a fistful of dollars. And they’re not sending any of those our way. How they cause us to reach that [75 percent] remains to be seen.”

Clay County’s Altman says the legislature will have to expand what counts toward recycling, noting that Clay is grinding up leaves and limbs to add nutrients into soil used at old mining sites and providing cover at landfills. “That’s recycling,” he argues. “So it’s a matter of them allowing us to count that.”

Altman doesn’t believe the Pay As You Throw plan will produce the desired results, and may encourage scofflaws. City of Jacksonville Acting Director of Public Works Jeff Beck seconds that. “If you have a real heavy item to throw away and you’re going to be charged for it, it’s going to ‘fall off’ your pickup truck on the side of a road,” says Beck. “We’re not looking at Pay As You Throw at this point.”

But Beck believes the city will be able to achieve DEP’s recycling goal of 75 percent by 2020. As of 2009, the last year complete numbers were compiled and reported to DEP, the city was recycling approximately 45 percent.

The city is discussing ways to increase that number, including introducing a wheeled recycling container that will make hauling the blue bins easier. A new recycling facility opening later this year should increase the number of recyclable items. And the city is exploring ways to turn organic waste into soil additives and pelletized fuel. They’re also exploring a segregation facility at the landfill for catching materials that people put in garbage instead of in the recycling bin.

Though that probably won’t mean a horde of garbage pickers, as featured in the documentary “Waste Land” (http://to.pbs.org/wIencx), it’s an example of how solid waste managers are trying to offset the tendency of many potential recyclers to simply not bother. Of course, the city could help itself by requiring multi-unit condos and apartments — home to about a quarter of the city’s population — to offer recycling, which many don’t. That’s a lot of paper and plastic going right into the city’s massive Trail Ridge Landfill.

Riding the Rid

Located off U.S. 301 near Baldwin, Trail Ridge towers above the pine forest like a huge Mayan pyramid. Fat yellow Caterpillars creep along the top, pushing and smashing garbage under steel-studded wheels, partially shaded by a flickering white canopy of seagulls, which love garbage. So do vultures, bald eagles, rats and other varmints.

It really is a “ridge,” the remains of oceanfront sand dunes from the Eocene epoch about 35 million years ago. It’s much taller now; Florida’s mountain that will top out at 330 feet. The view is great, particularly of the DuPont mine next door, where they extract ilmenite and rutile ore for titanium. Deer, hogs and turkey are plentiful and prized by hunting clubs that ring Trail Ridge, and part of the 978-acre site is wetlands. In one section, vapors rise into cold air as if from a peaceful lake. Actually, it’s a borrow pit, with the top of a crane just visible under the surface. It was trapped on the bottom of the pit and water has since covered it up.

Trail Ridge is a massive operation (though just medium-sized as landfills go) handling up to 3,000 tons a day. The more garbage in, the better the economics, which is why when the city’s “franchise detectives” caught one of its contractors hauling Duval garbage to a cheaper landfill, the city made them haul an equal amount of garbage from another county to Trail Ridge to make up for it. One can see why Waste Management is getting $305.5 million to manage it for the next 26 years, Mayor John Peyton’s no-bid parting gift that continues to keep on giving.

Jeff Foster, the city’s acting director of Solid Waste, points out the 22-acre area that’s being closed and says the current 144-acre active site has about five years more capacity left. They’re beginning to site the next stage.

A caravan of garbage trucks spirals up terraced roads and dumps their loads, which are eyeballed by two spotters from a tower. (A wayward tire will cost the contractor $13.89). The trash is then crushed and covered with six inches of dirt at day’s end. “Dirt provides odor and vector control [sanitary engineers call rats and birds ‘vectors’],” says Foster. “And it starts the degradation process.” Last year, the city spent $2.7 million on cover dirt, but will save about $5 million from the new borrow pits it’s opened.

Everything partially degrades at Trail Ridge, from the cereal box that could’ve been recycled to the huge vacuum blowers that move methane gas. “You’re constantly re-engineering at a landfill due to the water and the garbage crushing down compromising wells and pipes,” says Foster. “It’s a harsh environment of methane and hydrogen sulfide gas. Equipment wears out fast, you’re always updating and repairing it.”

After passing the flame that burns off the methane, and the silos that catch and hold the liquid runoff or lechate, the landfill tour officially concludes. The last tour group to come through was a group of Saudi nationals getting landfill pointers from Jacksonville, making one wonder: What’s worse, working at Trail Ridge in August or at a landfill in the Arabian Desert?

Richard Wall

Garbage Fac

Duval County

Solid Waste Budget: $46

Annual residential fee for garbage/recycling: $151.80

Average annual waste per household: 1

Average annual recycling per household: 180 pound

Cost per ton of residential garbage handled: $123

Recycling revenue FY 2010-’11: $959,000

Households served: 259,678 (by COJ, Advanced Disposal, Southland Waste, Waste Pro)

Not included: Atlantic Beach, Jax Beach, Neptune Beach, Baldwin.

Clay County

Annual residential fee for garbage/recycling: $223

Annual garbage per person: 715 pound

Average annual recycling per person: 61 pound

Recycling revenue FY 2010-’11: $300,000 (apx.)

Semi truckloads to Georgia landfill: 4,891 (includes commercial)

Households served (by Advanced Disposal): 60,853

Not included: Green Cove Springs, Keystone Heights, Orange Park, Penney F

Nassau County

Annual residential

Private company collected: 43,025

Taken to convenience center: 1,110

Annual residential garbage fee (private contract/Advanced Disposal): $300 (apx.)

Annual residential recycling (taken to convenience centers): 410

Recycling loss FY 2010-’11: $100,000

Not included: Callahan, Fernandina, Hilliard

St. Johns County

FY 2011 Solid waste budget: $17,315,147

Household garbage/recycling fee: $222

Average garbage per household: 1,760 pound

Average recycling per household: 340 pound

Cost of residential disposal per ton: $72.56

Recycling loss: $2,249,546 (contractors own and sell recycled materials)

Households served: 65,545

Not included: St. Augustine Beach, St. A

(St. Augustine reports recycling as 10 percent of residential solid waste.)

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