A garbage man can: Looking at a day in the life of an Ashland trash collector

Jan. 7—ASHLAND — Rodney Craft is a little over halfway through the last 10-hour shift of the week.

He's a wiry, slight man, brimming with energy. Everything about Craft is quick — he moves fast, he talks fast, he thinks fast.

Like a grandmaster chess player, he's 10 moves ahead.

Craft is one of the 18 men responsible for picking up trash for the City of Ashland's Sanitation Department.

Just nine months on the job, he's taken to it like a fish to water — his supervisor, Aaron Profit, calls him a "ninja with trash cans."

While his co-worker Israel Sudderith and I hang off the back of the truck, Craft dashes up the street ahead of the truck, pulling cans out ahead of time, ready to dump.

Some cans he doesn't even bother pushing over to the truck — he just grabs the bags inside and tosses them in.

To the untrained eye, it might seem simple — take the can, toss the refuse in and move on.

But it's absolutely dangerous work — Industrial Safety and Hygiene News ranked garbage collecting as the fifth most dangerous job in the United States, with a fatal injury rate of 34 per 100,000 workers.

Most of those deaths are a result of either being hit by the garbage truck itself or motorists looking to get around the truck.

"People want to get to where they're going, so they might cut around you and they're not thinking you have families to go home to," said Profit, a 16-year veteran of the department.

Out on the street, Rodney, Israel and I grab some cans wheel them over to the truck. The trick to it is hooking the lips of the cans to the lifter, flipping the lid back and pulling the lever.

The can raises up, until it's at a 70-degree-or-so angle and the trash slides out into the hopper.

As the hopper fills, there's a second set of levers that one pulls out to claw the garbage in. Once it's all in a pile, one pushes the same set of levers and it crushes it down.

A wooden table tossed in snaps like a toothpick under the jaws of the machine.

Up in the cab of the truck, 23-year veteran Ricky McGuire drives the truck, occasionally getting out to help toss some trash in the back on a big load.

Everyone I talked to had a similar story — no one set out to be a garbage collector, they just kind of fell into it. But each one appears to have taken a liking to it.

Ricky said he was working for a temp service years ago and hopped into it through that. He took a spell to work for a rail outfit but came back — the benefits with the city were too good to pass up, he said.

Israel is Ricky's son-in-law. An aspiring screen writer — he hopes to one day write an episode or two of the hit cartoon "Bob's Burgers" — Israel said he got the job through his father-in-law.

"It's a paid workout," he said. "It's not bad at all."

Rodney worked for years as a cook, but after the economic upheaval of COVID, he found himself riding the trash truck about nine months ago.

"I had to feed my kid," he said. "There's good benefits and I'm studying to get my CDL so I can start driving."

A day like Friday is perfect weather for trash-picking: cool weather, light breeze, dry. But for garbage collectors, it's a rain, sleet or shine deal.

Remember that cold snap the Friday before Christmas? Guess who was out working.

Remember the dog days of August? Guess who was out working.

With six trucks collecting an average of 350 houses of garbage a day — about 7 to 9 tons — the trash never stops on account of the weather.

And a week like after New Year's means a crunch on the trash collectors. While they were off work Monday, that just meant they had to cram five days worth of collection into four.

According to Ricky and Rodney, they collected roughly 26 tons worth of trash in two days.

To collect that much trash, one must be strong — the average trash run sees collectors putting in 12,000 steps on a shift, or about 4 to 7 miles a day.

The city of Ashland garbage cans weigh about 40 pounds empty — filled to the gills, that number can skyrocket to 200 easily.

Profit said there are 20-something-old guys who get worn out quick on the route. Sudderith said it took him about a month and a half for his body to adjust to the physicality of the work.

Ride the route long enough, you get to know what to expect from a household — some only set out a bag or two, others have four cans filled to the brim. Some require the can be returned to the back door of the residents, others keep rocks on the lids to prevent raccoons and possums from holing up inside.

And some can carry biohazard — typically hypodermic syringes. Ricky said one time they came across a duffle bag full of used needles — he recalled seeing a little kid waving out of the window of the home after they tossed it in.

"It was really sad," Ricky said.

What makes a good garbage man? At first, Profit was a bit stumped when he was asked the question, but after mulling he decided it takes a team, not just a man.

"You need a driver with knowledge, who has experience and knows what we can take and what we can't. Ricky has been around a long time and he has that knowledge," he said. "Then you need a guy like Craft, who takes pride in his work. He's a rock star and goes out there every day and tries to do the best he can. You need a guy like Israel, he's got integrity. He works steady, doesn't slow down and doesn't speed up. Just steady."

Profit continued, "If you have all that, you got a pretty good team."

And it takes going the extra mile.

At one house, we loaded up the back with some trash and as the truck was about to pull off, an elderly man came out of his home holding another bag. Without missing a beat, Rodney dashed toward him and grabbed it.

He threw it in the back and away we went.