Dennis Solano is convinced that Orange County enjoyed a prosperous Christmas, same as last year.
Solano should know. As a Costa Mesa trash collector, he is familiar with the vestiges of consumerism.
As he worked his route Friday during what is usually the busiest time of the year for trash haulers, the five-year veteran pointed out his evidence: curbsides full of bulging plastic bags and trash cans filled with wrappings, cast-away Christmas ornaments and boxes that once held such presents as Barbie Ferraris, Huffy bicycles and power tools.
Others in the industry, however, report that business this Christmas season appears to be down.
Officials at two trash-transfer stations in Anaheim and Wilmington report that the tonnage they are receiving this holiday season is definitely lighter than last year's because people bought fewer gifts and are recycling more.
"I'm down about 600 or 700 tons a day," said Ray Sheets, general manager for the Falcon Disposal Service's transfer station in Wilmington."
Nevertheless, people in the trash industry agree that the two weeks after Christmas are still the busiest, and they are no more hectic than in Orange County, where trash-collection companies have beefed up their work crews with extra trucks and personnel.
There is a bright side to the holidays for those who, like Solano, have the task of cleaning up after Yuletide celebrations. Tips and overtime pay put extra money in their pockets. By Friday, Solano said he had received $550 in tips and found another $100 in a trash bag. He said he gave the money to his wife to spend on extra toys for his children. But these perks, he added, don't make the job any less exhausting.
"At the beginning of Christmas we look forward to it. But by the end we are tired. It's a bummer," said Solano, 24, who made two hauls to the dump Friday to empty trash he collected on his route of 700 homes. At any other time of the year, he said, he could have completed the job by 10:30 a.m., with only one trip to the dump. But this day, although he worked with alacrity, he wasn't through until 2:30 p.m.
Richard Timm, manager of Rainbow Disposal Co., which serves residential and commercial customers in Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Sunset Beach, said the tonnage of trash his company handles during the Christmas season is at least 15% more than other times of the year, despite the lightness of the materials such as wrappings, cardboard and Christmas trees.
Timm said that, as usual, he expects to pay quite a bit of overtime this season. On Friday alone his crews worked about two hours longer than normal. "We budget for it every year," he said.
Part of the increase in overtime, he said, is because Saturdays are added to the workweek to make up for days off on Christmas and New Year's Day.
Disposal companies throughout the county say that this year they are making a special effort to separate Christmas trees from the trash and recycle them.
Ralph Perez, foreman for Costa Mesa Disposal, where Solano works, said that he added two more trucks to his fleet Friday just to pick up Christmas trees from residential tracts in the city.
Gary Hill, an operations manager for Western Waste Industries, which collects commercial and apartment trash in Costa Mesa, Irvine and Newport Beach, said this year for the first time the company will have a machine stationed near the County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa to grind Christmas trees to mulch.
Trash collectors say Christmas trees are already beginning to be put at the curb, although most will be disposed of after New Year's.
Trees and Christmas wrapping are not the only things being cast away this time of year. 'Tis the season, said garbage collectors, for households to throw out old toys, radios, televisions, bicycles and exercise machines to make way for the new, and for department stores to trash shipping crates and broken gifts that customers return.
"Some things start working as soon as they are thrown away," said Perez at Costa Mesa Disposal, noting that his workers frequently find good radios and use them or sell them at garage sales.
Solano had harvested a plastic Christmas wreath that he attached to the front grill of his truck. He said that on Monday he found a pair of good leather boots that he gave to his boss, who happened to wear just that size. But his most valuable find, he said, was an old jewelry box thrown away with a man's gold chain and bracelet inside. He said a jeweler appraised the chain at $3,000.
The job isn't always that pleasant. Solano recalled the time when he dumped a trash can and a possum jumped out. "Now, when I dump a can, I always step back," he said.
More recently, he said, a 5-gallon can of gasoline popped in his face, and he had to wear patches on his eyes for a day to let them heal.
As Solano reached the last street, he tried to pick up speed, hopping off the truck to heave the bags 15 feet into the cage of the truck, then lifting various levers to smash and crush the load.
Usually, Solano said, his company won't pick up more than six containers of trash at a residence--but the rules are bent at Christmastime when a single home may have a dozen or more containers.
"I can tell how full the truck is by how it steers," Solano said, adding that he hoped he could finish the tract without first making another trip to the dump.
Solano said the best part of his job is the people he gets to know--children who wave to him as they walk to school and retired people who come into the street to say hello and thank him for a job well done.
Solano, who lives in Santa Ana, said he didn't forget his own trash man at Christmas.
"I gave him a case of beer. He's a buddy," he said.
After Christmas--Trash Haulers' Busiest Season* As the county's trash haulers enter what is usually their busiest season of the year, many are saying that this post-Christmas appears to be no different than others, despite the recession. Figures for the amount of waste deposited at county landfills, however, show a general decline, which county officials attribute to an increase in recycling and the downturn in the economy. The following shows the number of tons deposited at county landfills in the past 17 months. In tons 1990: July: 408,190 1991: Nov.: 384,779 Source: Orange County Integrated Waste Management Department * The figures do not reflect recyclable materials, diverted before trash is dumped at the landfills.