As I walk into the UMass Waste Management department building I hear cackles and subtle banter from a group of middle-aged men. Immediately I’m back in middle school; the locker room before gym class, the boys sitting around on benches shooting the shit, waiting until exactly 11:45 when the bell rings and we stroll out to class in our matching mono-colored uniforms. The hair’s a little grayer, the jokes a little cruder, but I know these men, dressed in matching navy-blue work jacket and pants, warily tracking the minute hand as it hastens to some predetermined point.
The receptionist provides me with introduction. I’m here to follow and take pictures of a trash truck on its morning shift. This idea triggers laughter and more jokes. “It’s our five minutes of fame!” “I guess no one’s ever really interested in the garbage men,” I think to myself. I grab a seat and after a few more jokes ask whom I will be following. “You’re with Ray,” is the consensus and cause for more laughter.
Raymond Hennessey is a veteran of the UMass Waste Management program. He’s older than the rest. He sports a white mustache, glasses, and a bit of white scruff under his chin that says, “I’ve got more to worry about than what my face looks like when I come into work.” He doesn't say much as the crew teases him about being the focus of the paparazzi, just looks at me and nods. He seems fine with the idea. He’s not excited, but if he’s displeased he doesn’t show it.
At ten o’clock sharp the workers stand and zip up their jackets. Ray looks over at me and I follow him out the door. It’s unusually cold out and he slips on a pair of gloves. Around us men hurry into their trucks, out of the wind.
We head toward Southwest, the largest dorm cluster at UMass where 5,500 students squeeze into sixteen buildings. When we reach our first stop Ray and his partner hop out of the truck and begin their routine, wordless, heads buried in jackets, as efficient and practiced as any athlete. Grab bin, roll to truck, attach to forklift, dump garbage, return bin. Repeat, repeat, repeat again. I shiver as the wind whips around the buildings.
Watching Ray work, I’m struck with a curious thought; I have never seen or even fully considered the process that all trash must go through. Every pizza box that I throw away will be removed by Ray, a coworker, or a counterpart. As obvious as it sounds, the overlooked necessity of the task at hand is remarkable. I’m transfixed by Ray’s efficiency, diligence, and commitment to his work. Ray and his partner finish with the first stop and we move on.
“Imagine three times this amount of trash at every station,” he tells me. “That’s how much we have to deal with at the end of the year. We need two or three trucks just to take care of Southwest." A perk is finding TVs, mini-fridges, and speakers in good condition among the trash. Ray is always baffled by how little students care about their property. If something is a burden to take home, it gets tossed, and the waste adds up. By the end of the year 1500 tons will have been collected from the dorms, another 1700 from academic and auxiliary buildings.
At the second station Ray and his partner resume their routine. Roll the bins to the truck, attach them to the lift, dump the trash, and roll the bins back. The guys break periodically to condense the trash into the back of the truck, opening space for more.
Ray picks an empty thirty-rack box out of a trash bin, breaks it down, and places it with the recycling. John Pepi, the head of Waste Management, pays careful attention to recycling trends. In recent years 55 percent of recyclable waste generated at UMass has been disposed of properly. This number varies slightly from dorm to dorm. Southwest numbers are lower than average, Central and Northeast higher. In academic buildings Waste Management collects waste from individuals rather than central locations. “Collecting at each desk is more important than single stream, because it is convenient,” John tells me. “People would dismantle [the central collection sites].”
Recycling is great, John tells me, for reasons that the public is not aware of. “It takes one-seventeenth the energy to make something out of recycled products,” he explains. “Handling a given amount of material, to collect and transport to a landfill or incinerator creates one job. Handling the same amount of recycled waste creates fifteen jobs.”
We finish with Southwest and head to a weigh station located behind the Waste Management building. At this point it’s around 11:50, almost lunchtime. Ray heads to his break. After lunch he’ll unload the morning haul into the compactor. I watch as Mike, another truck operator who finishing his collection early, dumps his load into the compactor. Mike backs the truck up into a large fenced-in pit, with a steel slope that drops into a large hole.
“We dump everything into this compactor, which packs all the trash into a huge metal trailer.” Mike points down below the pit to a large green trailer that houses the trash. The load slowly slides into the hole and a hydraulic pump loudly crushes it into the trailer. “That’s about it on our end.” Mike adds, “We basically load this trailer up until it’s full, and Covanta comes and picks it up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday”.
Covanta is a waste disposal company based in Springfield. They collect trash from UMass three times a week, truck it back to their plant, and dump it into an incinerator where it is burned for energy. The electricity is sold to the local grid.
The current contract with Covanta will expire soon. John Pepi explains some options for future disposal: UMass can sell its trash to a waste energy company, ship it to a landfill, or send it to a larger transfer station. Pepi says that the University goals for waste disposal are unclear. He has to conform to Massachusetts standards and keep costs down. Pepi cites toxic leachate, greenhouse gas emissions, and dioxin formation as problems with landfills and waste energy. Still, he expects that UMass will continue selling to Covanta, or ship waste to cheap landfills in the Midwest.
Ray returns from lunch, and I watch with Mike as he dumps his trash into the pit. Done for the day, Ray and I walk back inside the Waste Management building. On the way over I thank him for his work. “You all deserve a million bucks,” I say. “Seriously, your work might go unnoticed, but I really want to thank you for what you guys do every day.” He squints at me through the noontime glare. “The million wouldn’t matter either way. Someone still needs to collect all the trash. But thanks for saying that. Most people really don’t appreciate how hard we work.” The white mustache crunches upward as he cracks a slow smile.