Garbage town

Climbing into a Mack truck is a powerful feeling.

You have enough horses under the hood to haul 30 tons.

You’re fueled by duel 50-gallon gas tanks that cost $300 to fill.

And you sit high enough in the saddle to dwarf the most puffed-up SUV owner.

Unfortunately, passengers pay a hefty price for all that torque.

“These trucks here,” driver Earnest Wright Jr. says as he jostles violently in his seat, “they are not a very smooth ride.”

Talk about an understatement.

It’s all I can do to keep the pen from flying out of my hand as I sit shotgun and try to take semi-legible notes.

Wright tells me things should settle down once the jacked-up suspension gets a load to carry. Until then, we bounce along just after sunrise on our first morning run.

Wright, 39, has been driving trucks for nearly 20 years, including the last two with Bargain Disposal Services in Milwaukee. His job entails dropping off and picking up dumpsters at more than 400 locations around southeastern Wisconsin.

“I’ve always had a love for driving trucks,” he says.

That’s me in the hard hat. Photo by Troy Freund

For that, he’ll always find work as the demand for hauling away garbage is only increasing. In two years, Bargain has more than doubled its fleet from three trucks to seven.

“We’re always growing,” said company manager Doug Sleaper.

It’s also a field that’s growing increasingly sophisticated.

For Wright, the bulk of his day is spent in his climate-controlled cabin. A hydraulic pump on the back does all the heavy lifting. Even the tarp that covers the load rolls on and off like a convertible top.

Gone are the days of an ungainly stick shift. Wright puts his massive vehicle in park, reverse and drive with the push of a button.

That’s not to say he doesn’t still get his hands dirty from time to time.

The grimiest part of the job is inspecting dumpsters for contraband. The list of prohibited items includes chemicals, appliances and animal carcasses.

Wright has seen it all.

“I can tell just by facial expressions if they have something to hide,” he says. “They get antsy and try to have a conversation to throw you off.”

The nastiest thing he’s seen?

“A cow head staring right at me,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, heck.’”

And how does a cow head end up in a dumpster?

“I have no idea how that cow ended up in the box,” he says. “I can’t explain it.”

Fortunately, the load of old roofing shingles we pick up in West Allis isn’t that gross — though the brown rainwater that drains out isn’t exactly drinkable.

“Not unless you want to commit suicide,” Wright notes.

There are eight full dumpsters at this stop that need to be taken one by one to the landfill. Wright will be back.

Photo by Troy Freund via

Rolling slopes on the horizon mark the garbage’s final resting place. These man-made hills in Menomonee Falls are actually mounds of trash that have been built up and buried.

The dump’s depressing nature makes me never want to throw away anything. Ever.

“This place gets pretty ripe in the summer,” Wright says as we snake up a dirt road.

Landfill traffic resembles the rush hour congestion we left behind on I-94. Trucks deliver garbage by the, well, truckload. A monstrous bulldozer that scares the crap out of me flattens each deposit.

Wright backs up beside the bulldozer in the muddy, refuse-strewn field. We get out and stomp across old magazines, plastic bags and who-knows-what to get to the back vault. Wright presses a lever and dumps a compact pile of carpentry cast-offs.

As soon as the load slides off, it’s time for the bumpy ride back for more.

Because the garbage never stops.

What it’s like to be a garbage collector

Likes “Not being confined to one place,” “the time moves quickly”

Dislikes Working with potentially dangerous materials

Perk Learning the area that you drive

Pet peeves Bad drivers, people who throw away contraband

Job hazard Being able to peer down into other cars. “I’ve seen people shaving, putting on make-up, making out, even things you wouldn’t be able to put into your paper.”

Hours per week 40–50, with more possible in the summer

Outlook Jobs for garbage and recycling collectors is expected to increase as the economy grows

Median wage $12.38 per hour, usually higher in metropolitan areas

Qualifications Experience operating heavy equipment, a good driving record

(Source: Bureau for Labor Statistics and Earnest Wright Jr.)

I wrote this article for the weekly MKE in May 2006