On a chilly November morning in San Francisco, two garbage collectors in bright yellow reflective jackets trudge up and down the city’s famous Filbert Street Steps, a stairway with 400-odd steps on one of the city’s steepest streets.
Many apartments on Filbert Street are only accessible by the stairs, so this is where residents set out their garbage and recycling carts. Working in the early morning twilight, the men locate each cart and then empty the recyclables into a bin they’re carrying and the trash into a burlap sack.
When they’ve serviced each cart, they head back to the truck, hauling the bin and burlap sack, and pour out the materials into the truck’s separate compartments for garbage and recyclables. Though it requires heavy lifting, this method of consolidating materials from a number of carts saves time, preventing the pair from making multiple trips back to the truck to empty each cart individually.
It’s 7 a.m., but Recology drivers Dave Franzoa and Fernando Gonzalez have been out on their route for three hours already.
The men are just two of the over 125,000 garbage and recycling collectors in the U.S. – an occupation that may not reap many accolades, but is essential to keeping our cities clean and – especially as recycling programs become more widespread – protecting our environment.
You may not be familiar with the garbage drivers that work in your neighborhood: You set out your garbage and recyclables weekly and – almost as if by magic – the carts are picked up, often while you’re still asleep or when you’re at work or school.
In fact, there is a good chance you’ve never even thought about who picks up the material you leave at the curb – until your garbage pick-up is missed or you’re stuck behind a garbage truck when you’re late for an appointment.
Just who exactly are these individuals who visit our homes weekly and whisk away our disposables? Earth911 accompanied Franzoa and Gonzalez on their route in San Francisco’s North Beach and Telegraph Hill neighborhoods to get a behind-the-scenes look at a garbage driver’s daily routine – to show you the obstacles a driver faces and highlight the skills needed to perform this very demanding and very dirty job.
The garbage man gene
Back on the route, Franzoa leaps into the truck, while Gonzalez hops onto the back of the truck, holding onto a railing, and the truck lurches forward.
“Not bad for a 51-year-old, huh?” he says, grinning.
Franzoa has spent 26 years as a garbage man in San Francisco, working for Recology, the solid waste and recycling company that has helped the City by the Bay achieve its impressive 77-percent recycling rate.
Waste management is in Franzoa’s blood. His great-grandfather worked in the industry in the early 20th century, after immigrating to San Francisco from northern Italy. Franzoa’s grandpa was also a garbage collector, but the garbage man gene skipped a generation – Franzoa’s dad was a butcher – until Franzoa started working for Recology, then called Norcal Waste, in the 1980s.
He started working his current route in the city’s northeastern neighborhoods, with breathtaking views of the bay and its bridges, 18 years ago. Today, his route partner of 12 years, José Morales, is home with a cold, so Franzoa is working with Gonzalez, a “floater” who rotates jobs in the company, filling in where he is needed.
“Most routes have one driver,” he says. “But this is such a dangerous route, so they kept it a two-man route.”
Stairs, hills and traffic: just another day on the route
Why is this route in one of San Francisco’s most scenic areas so perilous?
When the team isn’t trekking up and down stairs, they have other labor-intensive pick-ups: They’re opening up garage doors, unlocking them with keys from Franzoa’s enormous key ring, rolling carts back and forth to the truck over sharp hills.
Customers pay a premium to have drivers collect their carts from their garages or up stairs, but the amount of residents that sign up for this extra service surprisingly exceeds the number of customers that set out their own carts curbside, which costs less.
“Everyone thinks that garbage collection is easy now – it’s all automated,” Franzoa says, referring to drivers in some suburban communities who never even have to exit their trucks; they simply push a button to activate an arm that grabs carts and empties them into the truck. “But this route is still really hands-on.”
In addition to the tricky pick-ups, Franzoa and Gonzalez have to contend with navigating their truck through the neighborhood’s dangerously steep and narrow streets.
But they maneuver the truck expertly, making tight turns, backing up into narrow alleys, avoiding parked cars and low balconies, and ignoring the branches from overgrown trees that brush their faces as they drive by.
As 8.am. approaches, the sun comes out and the most hazardous element of the route increases, as rushed commuters make their way to work: traffic.
Franzoa prepares to turn down a one-way street, downhill, where he needs to fit the truck in a tight gap between a tree on one side of the street and the curb on the other side. Suddenly, a construction truck appears, driving the wrong way on the one-way street. Franzoa has to back up his truck, down another hill, so the construction truck can get by.
“Did you see that? He didn’t even thank me,” Franzoa says.
Of all the challenges facing a San Francisco recycling driver – the hills, the narrow streets and the weather – Franzoa says traffic is by far, the biggest obstacle he faces day to day.
As the route draws to an end at 9:30 a.m., the most grueling pick-ups are completed, and the drivers visit streets where many of the residents roll out their carts themselves. Franzoa parks the truck and tries to open his door to step into the street, but cars whiz by, accelerating over the blind hill and coming within inches of the truck door.
“We call this Suicide Street,” he says.
Despite the difficulty of his work, Franzoa says that garbage and recycling collection today is a lot easier than when he started in the ‘80s.
“Back then, you didn’t have separate, closed carts for everything. You had material all over the floor, and there were rats. You didn’t have laws about what you couldn’t throw in the garbage, so there was paint and grease,” he says.
Pride in a job well done
Even with his demanding route and the toll it’s taken on his body – he’s had five surgeries over the last few years – Franzoa is well-suited for his job and takes pride in it.
He calls himself a high-energy person, and he channels this boundless energy into the work – constantly scanning for traffic, pedestrians and missed carts, as well as making quick decisions under pressure.
“When you come out here, you have to have all your senses,” he says.
And his enthusiasm and dedication to his job has clearly earned him many friends along the way. As he drives around the neighborhood, residents taking early-morning walks or on their way to work stop to wave at Franzoa, and he salutes them back, shouting greetings from the truck and addressing them by name.
“I’m like the mayor of North Beach,” he says. “Everyone here knows me here.”