Talking trash with Randy Smith
By Amy Reiswig, May 2012
A salute to the guys that ride the trucks and heave the cans.
I looooooove trash! Many of you will remember Oscar the Grouch’s impassioned ode to anything dirty or dingy or dusty, but the main reason he as a character was funny is that, let’s face it, nobody loves trash. In fact, a good deal of civic infrastructure goes into separating society from what we find distasteful, dangerous or just plain disposable. That means hiring people to do the dirty work, and some people—like Saanich garbage collector Randy Smith—do love that.
The Victoria-born Smith started emptying household garbage cans for the District of Saanich about 18 years ago. And while he’s had other jobs for Saanich during that time, he says: “I’ve always come back to garbage.” Which might have many of you—and me—asking: Why?
“Look at today” he says enthusiastically on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon. “What a great day to be outside on the job!” Far from the Sesame Street grouch who loved trash, Smith is an easy-going, easy-to-laugh, easy-to-like married father of two who unashamedly loves what he does. “I enjoy coming to work every day. I do,” he assures a skeptical me in the boardroom at Saanich Public Works. “I’m still a kid at heart about hanging off the back of the truck. It’s so much fun! But I also like it for the team aspect and the camaraderie. We have high morale in our department.” And he’s apparently not the only one who feels that way. Of the 20 Saanich garbage collectors, Smith notes that over half have more seniority than him, which means most of the guys stick around for years.
And it seems there’s lots of garbage to stick around for. Smith says he’s seen a lot of hopeful changes over his tenure—the popularity of garage sales, the advent of recycling, and sites like UsedVictoria and Craigslist means people are not throwing out what they used to. But a three-man crew like Randy’s will collect, depending on the run, about 10 metric tonnes a day, and there are nine runs per day. Annually, the crew manager tells me, Saanich picks up about 13,000 metric tonnes a year. That’s a lot of garbage going to the landfill from just one municipality in Greater Victoria—garbage being taken away for those of us who would never want to handle it, don’t have time or, depending on physical ability, simply can’t.
“We’ll always throw stuff away,” Smith states, somewhat resignedly. “It’s the way our society is.” But he adds that, despite the fact that the trend towards reducing waste could possibly impact his line of work, “recycling has got to happen. It’s the way of the future,” he says, noting Saanich’s new Kitchen Scraps Recycling Pilot Program.
The affable and, perhaps not surprisingly, waste-conscious Smith breaks the stereotype many might have of the rude, crude garbageman (Smith confirms there are no female garbage collectors on the Saanich crew). And while it’s a very physically demanding job, an aspect Smith enjoys, it requires more than just brawn and bravado.
“It’s about your character. Can you get along with people? Like with any job, you spend more time with your partner than you do with your spouse! And there’s still that connection to people in the community,” he notes. “You see the same people; you always have time for a quick chat. I used to bartend, so I enjoy that.”
Smith confirms that the job also, as you might imagine, takes a really strong stomach. “In the summertime everything just liquefies,” he explains. “I lost my sense of smell for a few years.” (Somewhat ironically, one of his brothers works for a company developing perfume.) “There are the maggots,” he points out, and there are the mysteries: “Once on a hot summer day a garbage can had foam coming out of it. I never did open that one,” he laughs. Unfazed by much, he notes that “You do get rats—I had one today. And there’s a story of a guy who had one go down the back of his overalls.” Having visited Vancouver during a garbage strike, I have seen and smelled the kind of unwholesomeness garbage collectors save us from on a daily basis, and I sometimes think they could be classified as health workers.
But foul smells, vermin and backbreaking loads aren’t the only hazards faced by hands-on garbage men, and their own health is a job concern that Smith says some residents clearly don’t consider. From improperly disposed of needles to dead animals (he’s never found any human body parts, in case you were curious), one of Smith’s biggest complaints is with vacuum cleaner dust dumped unbagged in the bottom of a can. When the can is overturned into the truck, that dust creates an inhalable cloud where things like salmonella often live.
Then there’s the danger of what he calls the “toxic cocktail.” When cleaning product containers are tossed together in a bag and that bag gets compacted in the truck, those containers break open, mixing their residual chemical contents into potentially dangerous combinations. We don’t always think about the fact that our convenient cans, and their often odious contents, pass through human hands. It’s not magic that makes our garbage disappear: it’s people like Smith.
But for Smith, the benefits of garbage collecting—to him personally and to the community he serves—clearly outweigh the risks, even in the worst weather: “A wet day working outside is better than a day in an office,” he says. “And a lot of people do come out and say thanks. People being appreciative makes you realize you do give a good service and that it does matter. It’s nice to be acknowledged.”
So the next time you toss your trash, consider the people doing your dirty work, and remember that despite childhood memories of a cuddly green grouch, garbage collection and disposal is really nothing to laugh at.
Amy Reiswig is a Victoria writer.