My Big Blue Dumpster
Musings of a mad journalist
By Michael I. Niman
originally appeared in Blue Dog Press 3/22/01

             It was one of those warm sunny fall days that today seems like an eternity ago.  I remember it well.  Two RyderÔ trucks came rolling up my street on the West Side of Buffalo.   They were both big and yellow, like the one Starpoint High alumni, Tim McVay used when he blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

 The Dumpster Festival

             A group of a half dozen Mexicans, Maya hailing from southern Mexico, I believe, were running alongside the two trucks.  They had special work visas, I later learned, to come to the United States as guest workers and distribute garbage pails to residents of Buffalo and a number of other American cities. 

             The whole scene appeared quite jovial.  They’d jog from house to house pushing these strange rolling blue dumpsters in front of them.  Some houses got one.  Some got two or three.  A jefé with a clipboard called out house numbers in a slow deliberate Spanish, then made a mark on his forms, and called out the number of dumpsters to be dropped at each address: “uno, dos, trés.”

             The whole process took on a festive air, with the constant percussion beat of flying blue dumpsters bouncing about inside big yellow fiberglass echo chambers.  Kaboom boom bang.  Casa viente sies.  Ka thump a bing bang boom.  Uno para viente sies. Ka boom bomb.  Bueno.

 Los Dumpsterellos & the Parade of the Orange CrushÔ Trucks

             The scene brought back memories from years earlier, when I stood by the side of the street in Antigua, Guatemala, looking just as dumbfounded, as the parade of Orange Crush Ô trucks rolled by accompanied by a marching marimba band.  I later learned that the Orange Crush Ô distributor in nearby Guatemala City just got a fleet of new trucks, and as was customary, they were blessed in large festival in Antigua.  In subsequent weeks I attended the parade of the new police cars, the parade of the Pollo ReyÔ trucks, and a confusing little parade of what appeared to be drunks driving Ladas.

             American cities, Buffalo among them, are often cold and indifferent.   They tend to lack the daily celebrations of the ordinary that make life livable.  I welcomed the blue dumpster festival, small as it was, and I went out into the street to meet these revelers.

             Ka thump a bump boom boom boom.  Aqui es para ustéd!  Gracias amigos.

             Let me stop here for a minute and explain how these Mexicans came to be working for the City of Buffalo’s Division of Streets and Sanitation.  The city, as I found out, contracted with the North Carolina based subsidiary of a Neunkirchen, Germany based manufacturer of trash cans to supply the blue dumpsters.  They do business, in turn, with a West Coast company that specializes in delivering blue dumpsters to households across the United States.  It’s this final company that rented the RyderÔ trucks and hired the Mexicans.

 Crazy Gringo Tales

             Amidst the booms and bangs of the flying dumpsters and the endless stream of numbers shouted by El Jefé, the Mexicans and I stole away a few minutes to chat.  They were dumbfounded by their assignment.  How much garbage can Americans produce?  Es Loco! This strange task of delivering giant dumpsters to wasteful Americans will no doubt be the fuel for many nights of laughter when and if Los Dumsterellos ever return home.

             I recalled Mauricio, my landlord in Guatemala, who would sit around for hours telling stories of his days living and working as a cook in a Mexican restaurant in Kentucky.  “The Gringos,” he’d recall, then apologize for using the pejorative, would get into their cars at their apartment complex and drive across the highway to the supermarket.   This line would normally take a few minuets of hacking laughter to utter, punctuated with vivid descriptions of the apartment complex, the parking lot, the highway and the supermarket.   

     More recently I read a magazine interview with a woman explaining why she needed a nineteen foot long Ford Excursion to take her and her two kids grocery shopping.   I wish I could show it to Mauricio.  He’d no doubt buy me a cerveza, pat me on the back, and mumbling about “gringos locos.        

Americans are Pigs

 Americans are pigs.  Together with Canadians we make up less than 6% of the world’s population, yet we consume a third of its resources and produce half of its wastes.  Giving a big blue dumpster to an American consumer is like giving an alcoholic keys to a bar.  Even our architecture has changed to accommodate our gluttony.  New homes are laden with closet space (and bathrooms).  What once was a garage in the back is now a three or four car loading dock dominating the face of the house.  Shoppers can just back their SUV’s up to the docks and off load their sweatshop booty.  

 This consumerist frenzy is not solely a suburban or a middle class phenomenon.  In America almost everyone can consume like pigs.  Poor folks have bulk trash day and the Dollar TreeÔ, working class folks have AmesÔ and K-MartÔ, middle class folks have TargetÔ and SearsÔ, and rich folks shop god knows where.  But everyone works hard to fill his or her dumpsters.

I must honestly say the whole phenomenon is alienating.  The Mexicans gave me two dumpsters - one for my apartment and one for the folks downstairs.  I quickly squirreled one away behind the garage and proceeded, patriotically, to work with the downstairs neighbors to fill the other, a task we are only able to complete once every four to six weeks.

Every Sunday night we look with amazement and awe as our neighbors wheel out dumpster after dumpster.  Most two family houses wheel out two dumpsters.  At first I though they just didn’t want their trash to co-mingle.  I have no idea why this would be, but I never understood why men and women couldn’t use the same Porta-PottiÔ either.  As it turned out, for the most part, this wasn’t the case.  All the dumpsters were full.

 This is truly impressive.  We don’t even have loading docks in Buffalo.  Many of us don’t have cars.  But we keep the trash stream humming.

 A Mountain of Q-TipsÔ

In our house, we calculate that we recycle at least 75% of our garbage.  Think about it.  After the bottles, the cans and those little plastic buckets formally filled with Chinese soup and yogurt and humus and the like go into the recycling bucket; and after the newspapers and junk mail and not so junky mail and cereal boxes and boxes the UPSÔ wo/man brings go into the recycling bucket; and after all the onion skins and tea bags and coffee grounds and moldy food from the fridge go into the compost bucket (made from a now obsolete garbage pail), what’s really left to go into the big blue dumpster?

I’m just dumbfounded as to how many KleenexÔ tissues, TamponsÔ, Q-TipsÔ and StyrofoamÔ packing pellets and meat trays a family can consume in a week.  Add in all that annoying shrink rap and a few grease soiled pizza boxes, and we’re still not close to filling one of these 95 gallon babies.

 It really seems like a challenge.  Sometimes I think I’m a freak.  I need to get with the program.  I need to fit in.  Maybe if I started eating PringlesÔ, using aerosol air “fresheners,” and bought more stuff from Amazon.comÔ I could fill my dumpster.

 Then I found the real trick to filling your dumpster.  Do like most of your neighbors.  Fill it with recyclables. 

 Snow Plow Hockey

 Really, I was rather clueless about this until a playful snowplow operator came tearing up the street on trash day batting the suckers out of the way like hockey pucks.  Rat proof, windproof brick shithouses that they are – snowplows send ‘em flying.  As they popped open jettisoning their contents across sidewalks and gardens, lo and behold, there were everyone’s cereal boxes, bottles, cans, Shed SpreadÔ tubs and the like.

 Now the secret is out.  We’re supposed to fill our big blue dumpsters with recyclables. 

 So I called the Mayor’s hot line to ask if it was true.  “Absolutely not,” I was assured.  The “totes” as they call the dumpsters, “are to protect trash from rain, snow and rats.” 

 Tony Calls Them “Totes”

 Totes? Where did that name come from?  My brand name clogged mind immediately called up a catalog image of TotesÔ brand galoshes, a remnant from my parent’s crusade against rain-damaged children.  Otherwise there is the verb, “to tote,” which means “to carry by hand,” or “to bear on a person” (such as a backpack) or “to haul.”  Well, the first two definitions are disqualified seeing as this thing has wheels.  And the third?  Dammit, you cannot name a thing after a verb.  Yes this is the same city that thought painting the catchy slogan “refuse recycling” on the sides of garbage trucks would encourage us to recycle – this is even more of a reason not to allow them to confuse verbs for nouns.

 So let’s look at “tote” as a noun.  There’s a “burden” or a “load.”  Burden sounds right if you’ve ever watched a frail senior citizen try to drag their “tote” through the snow.  As for “load,” that is what you put into the “tote.”  It is not the “tote” itself.  This leaves us with the final dictionary definition for the noun, “tote” - that being “a pari-mutuel machine,” or pre-computer age horse-track device for calculating multi-placing race bets.  

 They had to mean “burden.”

 Buffalo’s big blue burdens hold 95 gallons of trash.  Buy comparison, recycling buckets hold 12-14 gallons.  Using my conservative 4:1 household recycling ratio, if I have a 95-gallon burden-tote-dumpster, I should have a 400-gallon recycle bucket.  Or, calculating in the other direction, with my 12-gallon recycle bucket, I should have a three-gallon totelito.  Either way I’m off the mark by a factor of about 30.  Yes, I am a freak.

 The Vulcan Recyclerama

 Unwilling to accept the freak label I went on a tour of the “recyclery.” It’s the garbage dump at the end of the universe, just off of Vulcan Street.  “Recyclery.”  It immediately became my word for the week.  I dropped it into every conversation I could.  It’s not often you get possession of a word before it hits the dictionary.  Slang doesn’t count seeing how it ain’t ever destined for dictionary legitimization.  And “tote,” that one’s just plain silly.  But R-e-c-y-c-l-e-r-y.  This is a class word.  It’s going places.  For a week I spelunked about the UniversityÔ peppering my conversations with “recyclery.”  Everyone grinned with confidence, feigning recognition of the new word.  I became bold and began speaking wildly of a “recyclerama.”  People smiled.

 The recyclery is in and of itself recycled.  It started its life as a Curtis Wrightâ factory making P-41 fighter planes during the 1930s and 40s.  After World War II ended it became a Western Electricâ telephone wire plant.  Today it has more of a post apocalyptic feel to it as workers toil along two elevated conveyor belt sorting recyclables which drop into large concrete lined stalls where a madman driving a hi-loader scoops them up and deposits them into larger piles.  Finally they are crushed and formed into bales of approximately 500 cubic feet.  BFIâ runs the recyclery and ships the bales to companies that reprocess the waste-turned-resource into insulation, clothing, kayaks, chairs and a host of other consumer products.

 Unfortunately for Buffalo, only about 10% of the city’s trash makes it to the Vulcan recyclerama.  The rest stays on earth.  Or more specifically, it goes into the earth in landfills, with the city paying a tipping fee by the ton.  If you want to complain about your garbage fee, start complaining to your neighbor with the Cocoa PuffsÔ box in his dumpster.  You’re paying to landfill your neighbor’s recyclables because they can’t quite grasp the basic concept of a recycling bucket.

 The Commissioner

             I think this story, however, has a happy ending.  Buffalo’s Commissioner of Streets and Sanitation, Paul Sullivan, co-hosted the recyclery tour.  I may be a sap, and time may prove me wrong, but I really think Sullivan is one of the good guys.  He embodies the essence of the term, “civil servant.”  This is often quite rare in the kleptocratic culture of local government.  He impressed me years ago when he responded to block club complaints and actually scheduled regular trash and recycling pick-up for my East Side neighborhood.   Since then, he has solved every garbage pick-up complaint I’ve ever presented to his office.  On the West Side, he seemed personally offended that the chuckleheads under his command were habitually tossing empty trashcans into flowerbeds.  He sent snowplows to clear my street without ever meeting me or asking about my political camp affiliation.  If the complaint is legitimate, Sullivan gets right on it, no matter who you are or what neighborhood you live in.

             That said and done, I still walked into the recyclery thinking the blue dumpster program was pretty dumb. I felt bad that it was Sullivan who would have to field my questions and complaints.  Why the big dumpsters and the tiny buckets?  What’s the message here?  Why protect trash from the weather in closed dumpsters but not protect the recycling?  Sullivan was attentive.  “The city pays by the ton to dispose of trash – wet trash is more expensive to dump.”  Hence, according to Sullivan, the $37 cost of  “totes” will be recouped in savings by keeping the trash dry.  Of course fibrous absorbent trash shouldn’t be in the dumpsters in the first place, but that’s a separate problem

             Why don’t we recycle people’s old garbage pails into recycling pails? Why pick up the trash before the recycling?  Why not pick up the more vulnerable recycling buckets first and leave the bulletproof dumpsters to face the elements?  We lost two dozen recycling buckets on my street to last November’s storm. They only emerged from snow banks last week.  And on and on I went – with Sullivan taking notes all the while.

             The good news, he told me, is that starting this July, people can trade their 95-gallon dumpsters in for 60 or 30-gallon models and see a reduction in their garbage fee.  Likewise, owners of two family homes can trade their extra dumpster and get billed as a single family home.  The city is also investigating purchasing recycling “totes,” which could pay for themselves since they wouldn’t need to be emptied on a weekly basis.  Unlike the trash “totes,” the recycling “totes” would be free, no matter the size.

             Of course there is the obvious problem of homeowners and cheap landlords trading in their large dumpsters for smaller cheaper ones, and then storing extra trash in their basements or dumping it in vacant lots.  But I guess we’ll deal with that when the time comes.  No doubt we might see a small platoon ticket wielding “trash cops.”  I can’t really see the city passing on a cost effective plan to hire more cronies.

 Tom Wolfe never warned Mike about this

             I started tossing ideas back and forth with Sullivan.  In the end he drafted me to serve on something called, I believe, “The recycling advisory board.”  Members meet regularly with city officials, eat free pizza and brainstorm about trash.  Nobody gets paid.

             So this is my last condescending column about dumpsters, trash and recycling.  Now I’ve got to move beyond complaining and start thinking about how to fix this mess.  The buck stops here.   All this “tote” nonsense will soon be my fault.  Such are the perils of advocacy journalism.  The commissioner is a genius.