Trash Talk

Holiday-tipping etiquette and other sanitation insights from my friendly garbage guy.

Illustration by Jaoa Fazenda

Every Christmas, I tip the garbage guys, but I worry they will not see the envelope or baked goods I tape to the lid of the can. Last year, I ran out to the street when I heard the truck coming. A burly guy barreled off the back of the truck and took my batch of cookies with $10 taped on top with a smile. The truck was in sync with my daily walk around the block, so I ambled alongside to chat with the garbage guy—he identified himself as Zack—and got some real dirt on trash.

Zack’s training to become a garbage man was somewhat limited. “They threw me on a truck and said ‘look both ways.’” His day starts at 5 am with a big fast-food breakfast, and continues straight through to 2:30 pm without lunch.

His main complaint is what we put in our cans. Garbage guys would like us to put our stuff in big bags, not 20 little bags. Depending upon local ordinances, there’s a 40-65 pound limit on each can. Things like cement blocks, kitchen tile, rocks and dead animal carcasses are unwelcome. And please don’t put your kitty litter un-bagged in the can; cat feces can cause disease.

Zack tells me about a man who repeatedly shoveled his dog’s excrement into the can. “I told him we couldn’t take it, so it froze into a giant Fudgsicle.” Next, the man called the town to complain. “I was ordered to take it, but couldn’t loosen the crap from the can, so I threw the whole thing in the truck. The guy sued the town for the price of the can.”

Zack works in all kinds of weather. “In the summer, I would love a cold drink,” he says. “To show my gratitude, I won’t fling your lid. We hate autumn because of all the leaves.”

Zack never wears his required safety glasses because they’re uncomfortable. He sometimes dons a reflective vest, but he’s mostly at the mercy of cars, dogs and protruding mailboxes. He works as “the ground man”—a dangerous gig. Two-thirds of the deaths of garbage workers are caused by their own vehicle or oncoming cars. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 22 out of every 100,000 garbage workers are killed each year.)

The garbage guys aren’t supposed to ride on the back of the truck unless it’s going less than 10-miles per hour. “We love to sail down streets at 40,” Zack admits. He has suffered sprained ankles and rotator cuff injuries. “They have those new hydraulic lifts that raise the can into the truck, but those are too time-consuming and I know guys who got their arm caught in the lift.” Some trucks are automated, “I guess I’ll be replaced by a driverless truck and a robot arm in a few years.”

You can legally tip the garbage man. While they love baked goods, they prefer cash. “Not everyone tips,” says Zack, “but when they do, most people give us $20.” He and his driver split the tips; last year, they each netted $11,000 in gratuities. With tips, Zack made $50,000. Some garbage guys are luckier than others. “Let’s just say at Christmas you want to be in Mendham, not Dover,” he reveals.

Of course, tips are welcome anytime of year and can curry special favors. Put $20 with that discarded couch, and Zack will make it disappear. “We know when you are putting out your fence bit by bit.”

Zack is married with two kids and—be quiet about this—sometimes goes for manicures and pedicures to clean up.

“When I was a kid, I loved sports and wanted to be in the NFL, but didn’t go to college,” he says. “I’m a good dad. I’m home by 3 pm and I’m going to coach my son’s football league.”

This year, I’m giving my garbage guys a bigger tip. When the weather heats up they’ll get a cold drink. After all, their work is garbage. And face it, that stinks.

Loretta Napolitano is an adjunct professor of English, public speaking and physical education at Fairleigh Dickinson University and William Paterson University.

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