I spent my morning in a garbage truck. Here’s what I learned.

single-meta-cal June 22, 2017

Pictured: David Sloan of the City’s Public Works Department

Miss part one? Read it here. This is a two-part series exploring the role of the City’s sanitation department. Like what you see and want to see more coverage on similar topics? E-mail communications@huntsvilleal.gov.

The glamor is gone. Which is an odd thing to say about a profession that can inspire Laffy Taffy jokes – “What has four wheels and flies?” “A garbage truck” – and that was clouded in an aroma that makes a junior-high gym locker smell like a bowl of potpourri by comparison.

No longer do two workers hang from the rear of the truck, jostling around like subway passengers, leaping off the running boards and snatching big metal cans full of who-knows-what and flinging the contents into the gaping mouth.

There was a choreography to it all, and it could be mesmerizing to a previous generation of youngsters — at least when observed from a distance.

So, it does my heart good to see a young boy, maybe 5 or 6, standing barefoot in the driveway in T-shirt and flannel PJ bottoms, watching with fascination as the mechanical claw of this new-era garbage truck reaches out to snatch a plastic can full of who-knows-what and hoists it into the air.

I am riding shotgun in truck No. 030556, one of the fleet belonging to the Department of Public Works of the City of Huntsville. David Sloan, who has been with the City for a little more than four years, is the driver.

Numbers & Engineering

The truck can hold 21,000 pounds of garbage and sells for $250,000 or so. Expensive, yes. But consider the savings on a process that necessitated three people instead of one, and in a city seemingly always expanding its boundaries.

Many considerations go into the engineering design of a sanitation truck. Passenger comfort is not among them. The seat feels more like a small, semi-padded shelf added as an afterthought. You know those paint-can shakers at the home improvement stores? That’s how it feels when the claw arm is extended and reaching back up to dump garbage.

Sloan, meanwhile, might as well be in a leather recliner. His cockpit has a comfortable seat, plenty of air conditioning and a giant steering wheel that rests pretty much parallel to the ground. There is virtually no nose to the truck – makes it easier to maneuver tight spaces on small streets – so the engine compartment shares the cab.

There is a small monitor on which Sloan can see inside the truck’s hopper, see what’s being dumped or to help him drive in reverse. A joystick with five colored buttons is within easy reach. It’s how he controls the claw arm.

New challenges

Sanitation workers 20 years ago dealt with bum knees, bad backs and achy shoulders. Today’s force – honest – has to be wary of carpal tunnel syndrome.

As I arrive at 6:15 a.m. to meet Sloan, the Public Works headquarters on Johnson Road is already busy. Drivers are in informal meetings or doing their “walk-around,” to check the condition of their vehicle. They must monitor mileage to assure proper maintenance and they are supposed to keep the truck clean, inside and out.

Sanitation trucks are not allowed to begin pickup before 7 a.m., but they’re already well on their way by then, spread out across town like a shotgun start for a golf tournament.

Sloan’s route on this day is in the westernmost outposts of the city, stretching into Limestone County south of I-565. It’s a mixed bag of stops as much as a mile apart, a modest, compact neighborhood with some 250 homes and a growing subdivision of McMansions.

On another day, say on a Tuesday, he might have 1,200 stops in Hampton Cove, necessitating two or three trips to empty his truck, either at the landfill or the Covanta Huntsville Solid-Waste-To-Energy facility on Triana Blvd.

Artful maneuvering

It takes more than an hour simply to service the 250-home neighborhood, a task complicated by on-street parking and residents who have placed their cans too close to each other or to other obstacles, such as trees, mailboxes, parked cars and other trash.

Sloan is terrific at what he does. He squeezes down the tight streets and, using his right-side mirrors, pulls up to the big plastic cans so the claw arm can stretch directly out and grab hold. Any chance of monotony is erased by the navigational challenges.

We see the kid in PJ bottoms about halfway through. He shades his eyes with his right hand, in what looks almost like a salute. He watches the arm snatch the can, lift it above the truck and hears the trash crash into the truck, where a hydraulic-powered wall begins to compact the load. As the can is returned to the street, the kid waves, then hustles back inside.

I want to tell him that what he saw was really cool. But he shoulda seen it when it was still glamorous.