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Background Image Man sitting in cab of sanitation truck

Not Buried in Trash? Thank a Sanitation Worker.

This essay is part of the Ad Astra: Working Hard in the Heartland initiative featuring the stories of working Kansans. 

Story and Photos by Margaret Mellott

As I climbed into the left side of a blue automated trash truck, the driver pointed out the A/C at the top of the truck telling me that while it isn’t much, it helps. Once I sat down, I was a good four or five feet off the ground and sitting that high up on the left side watching traffic come at me wasn’t the most fun, but I got used to it.

This truck was definitely not something I was familiar with. I mean, the steering wheel was on the right side, there was a giant dashboard between me and the driver, the A/C was above me, the front window was huge, there were two side mirrors on each side. And most obviously, the truck had a giant claw on the right side.

Emporia is a small college town, and the sanitation department plays a significant role in everyday life. They collect roughly 31,527 tons of trash and recycling a year. That’s 2,627 tons a month and about 85 tons a day, according to Keith Senn, solid waste manager for Emporia. That’s a lot of garbage for the 30 people employed by Senn to collect.

Public Opinion

Despite this line of work being crucial to society, there are still so many people who think of “trashmen” as lesser, Senn said.

“Trashmen have a stigma,” Senn said. “‘Oh, those dirty guys,’ but where would we be without them? I get that a lot, especially on the telephone. Even from professional level people. ‘It’s unskilled, they’re the lower class.’ At least, that’s the feeling you get.”

As the manager in charge of the collections department, recycling department and the transfer station, Senn oversees a lot. His workers' safety is one of his main concerns.

“My least favorite [part of the job] is accidents,” Senn said. “My greatest fear is fatalities. This line of work has the fifth highest fatality rate in the nation. My biggest fear is losing somebody. I haven't, but I’ve come close.”

Working with the public can be both one of the worst and best parts of the job, Senn said. 

“I wish the public was a little more patient,” Senn said. “We struggle with staffing all the time. We do have a big turnover, it’s a tough job. Not everybody wants to do it. I guess a good example of that is probably the last two years I’ve been running short on drivers, I have a hard time finding drivers and so, we may only have three drivers for the four automated routes. As a result, we do the trash first and then everybody jumps on recycling so we’re late. People want to get rid of their waste, but they get impatient about it.”

Senn said he loves helping people, and he’s able to do that through his work.

“Dealing with the public is not always lost on you,” Senn said. “But, the flip side of that coin is that’s what I enjoy. I enjoy helping people. I was a sheriff’s deputy years ago and I’ve been working in public service for, I don’t know, going on 34 years.”

Despite the stigma sanitation workers have, Senn said this work is necessary to keep the town clean.

“Trash service is simply a utility, just like sewer and water,” Senn said. “It’s important to manage waste because, well the town would simply be a mess. Look what happens in the big cities when the union trash workers go on strike.”

Despite this line of work being crucial to society, there are still so many people who think of “trashmen” as lesser

More to the Job

The sanitation department has a much wider scope than I thought. When I visited the transfer station, Senn showed me some of the land owned and used by the department. The construction demolition area grabbed my attention.

There are lots of extras that come from any construction process and this is where some of those extras go. Tina Weeks, foreman, works on creating these hills using construction waste. However, to get it where it needs to go, Weeks must push it up a hill using a machine known as a trike loader.

“I love running that machine, that’s one of my favorite things to do,” Weeks said. “It’s a trike loader and then I build this giant hill. There’s two other guys that helped, but I’m the main operator. I’m out here almost everyday, all day long.”

Emporia residents are allowed to dispose of their construction waste, but not everyone follows the rules set in place, according to Weeks. 

“The public I would like to pay more attention to the regulations we have out here: No caulking tubes, no paint jugs, buckets,” Weeks said. “We get a lot of trash out here that’s not supposed to be here. We just got done picking all of it up. Throughout the day we have to go through and pick out all that trash. We let them know at the gate when they come in, we ask if they have any trash, they say no, but a lot of times there is some trash in there. Throughout the day I’m always telling customers that ‘it’s not appropriate and can you please take it up to the top.”

Everyday Work

On the residential route, I rode with Mike Sullivan, foreman. Sullivan’s been a driver with the Emporia sanitation department for 13 years. Sullivan said he’d been driving that particular route for about five or six years.

Throughout those years, Sullivan’s picked up some interesting things. At least every couple years, Sullivan said he’ll see an animal.

“The strangest thing I’ve picked up? I would probably say, I don’t know if you’d count an animal carcass or not,” Sullivan said. “I’ve picked up a few deer, I’ve had skunks in the back of the truck...somehow (a live skunk) lived through it all. We got out to the dump and he went tumbling out and took off. We’ve had opossums and big racoons, just about everything. I’ve yet to see a cat or a dog or anything like that, and I hope I don’t see that either.”

As I rode alongside him in this truck, he pointed out the little things along the way. At one point, we drove past a couple of little dogs who Sullivan called his friends that like to bark at and chase the truck when he drives by.

Moving on from the stop-and-go of the residential route, we head to the transfer station. 

Upon reaching the station, we weighed the truck and then waited our turn to empty the load. As we backed into the open building-like structure that housed much more trash, I was finally hit with the pungent smell that could only be described as old food and diapers. Thankfully, unloading the truck didn’t take long. The back lifted and we drove forward, leaving a short trail of trash behind us, waiting to be shoved into another crate to be transfered. 

About Margaret Mellott

Margaret Mellott is a junior secondary education majorat Emporia State University and editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, The Bulletin. Her hometown is Shawnee, Kansas, and she hopes to teach journalism at the high school level. 


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