Simple Trash Day Turns Into 'Integrated Waste Management'

Tuesday is getting to be a day of heavy action on the streets of northwest Glendale.

It's trash day. And that's not as simple as it used to be.

First of all, on alternate trash days, those citizens who are ecologically minded put out three buckets or bundles at curbside, one for bottles, another for metal and plastic empties and a third for old newspapers.

A three-compartment city recycling truck wends its way through the neighborhood picking up the sorted refuse.

At the same time, a second truck--one of those familiar old standbys that load from the rear--rolls up and down the same streets emptying another set of containers. These are the hardware-store variety, of different shapes and colors. Though commonly called trash cans, they are not used for trash anymore. In them, if the good citizens of the neighborhood are doing as instructed, are the weekly cuttings of grass, leaves and branches from these older, smartly landscaped homes. This is called green waste.

Luckily for those who chart the rising level of the city's dump, green waste is no longer really waste. The city gives it to a factory in the San Fernando Valley where it is pulverized into a product called soil amendment. The stuff is packaged and sold in nurseries as an aid to plant growth.

But back to Tuesdays. After the yard waste is gone, the day's work is still not done. There is real trash to be picked up.

These days, real trash goes into a strange and beautiful machine. It's long and low, with a cubical cab out front and a cylindrical vessel slung to the rear. Between them are a funnel-shaped mouth and a mechanical arm. The arm can reach across the width of a parked car and encircle a trash can in its webbed hydraulic hand. It yanks the trash can from the curb and lifts it upside-down over the mouth that sucks the trash in. Then it puts the container back on the curb.

These are not ordinary trash cans. They are 3 1/2 feet tall, reinforced and notched to fit the hand grasp. They are fitted with large wheels and a flip-up lid and balanced for easy transit from back yard to curb.

Last May, the city gave one to each household in five small pilot areas to test automated trash collection.

The results were good, so this week the areas are being more than doubled to about 12,000 homes.

Coincidentally, the city of Los Angeles this week started automatic trash pickup through most of northeast Los Angeles.

The purpose of this automation is to increase productivity and take a load off one of society's respected, if not envied, occupations.

Ruben Jimenez has been picking up trash in the neighborhood since the pilot program began last May. Each day he does 2 1/2 of the routes he used to do in a two-man truck.

A trash man for 17 years, he knows the feel of long summer days lifting heavy cans into the back of a truck. Once, he was sidelined 38 days with a hernia.

Now he lifts 100-gallon containers with his fingertips. He presses a white button to move the arm out, another to grab the can and another to empty it.

"I'll probably last a lot longer," Jimenez said. "I don't know how much more pain I could have endured."

While Jimenez now works in air-conditioned comfort, with stereo music if he wants it, the job of putting out the trash has gotten proportionally more demanding. There's a trick to this trash can. Place it too far back from the curb and the arm can't reach it. Too close to a green waste can and the hand can't squeeze between without knocking one over.

Most important, the lid must open to the street or the lip of the funnel-mouth might hold it shut, causing the trash to spill onto the street.

Instructions are printed on the lid in English, French and Spanish, although unfortunately not Armenian.

Jimenez said there was a lot of confusion at first, but soon everyone on his route caught on. This Tuesday, he only had to stop twice in several blocks.

Once, it was for an overflowing container that spilled trash on its way up. Jimenez threw a switch that hissed the truck into parking mode. He put on gloves, climbed down to the street and picked up each bit of paper. Then he attached a yellow tag to the container after marking one of its 13 possible warnings, "Your container was overfilled."

The other time he had to move a container that was placed too close to a parked car.

At another house, he raised an alert merely by pausing to demonstrate his technique. A woman who must have known the sting of his reprimand before ran out in a panic and readjusted her container to give him a better angle. Only then did she discover that he had already emptied it. She slinked away.

After witnessing a scene like that, it's difficult to imagine that not too many years ago, Sam Yorty became mayor of Los Angeles by promising people he wouldn't make them fuss over their trash.

The city has a name for this brave new world: "Integrated Waste Management." For once, it's hard to fault the bureaucrats for using a long Latin phrase in place of a simple Anglo-Saxon word.

It really doesn't fit to call it trash day anymore.

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