Unsung workers keep Tahoe clean
Hans Plumb points out the window at his orange-shirted co-worker who is banging a garbage can against the ground, trying to break apart the foot-thick layer of ice inside.
That’s one of the bad parts about collecting garbage in the winter, Plumb says; people leave lids off their cans. The cans fill with ice or snow, and that can lead to as much as 50 pounds of ice in a container the South Tahoe Refuse workers have to lift at least waist high.
Also in the winter, sometimes there are big, slushy puddles the workers have to tread through. For the most part, though, the winter time is easier for these guys simply because there’s less trash. Summer brings pine needles, lawn clippings and more people.
“There’s a big difference between summer and winter,” says Plumb, who has worked for South Tahoe Refuse for eight years. “Now, just the holidays are busy times. Today, we’ll just have one load. In the summer, I’ve pulled four loads just out of the Sierra Tract.”
Plumb drives the 14-foot-high orange collection truck down Margaret Street in South Lake Tahoe. Mike Heyges, who has worked for the company two years, rides along out front, standing on a small step next to the trash bin he is filling. When the bin is full, he signals to Plumb, who quickly handles a few levers inside the cab.
Giant metal arms move the bin up into the air, dumping plastic bags, discarded wooden chairs and cardboard boxes.
The truck compacts the garbage, and the duo moves on.
It’s 8 a.m.
Plumb and Heyges got to work about 4:30 a.m. and were on the road by about 5 a.m.
“It’s almost like the hardest part of the job is getting up in the morning,” Plumb says. “Once you’re here, it’s like just going through the motions. But when everyone else is thinking about what they’re going to have for lunch, I’m off.”
The job isn’t an easy one for either Plumb or Heyges, who can switch places. Plumb has to drive the huge truck, staying aware of the traffic around him, and all the while operate a series of levers inside.
“There’s more than just driving the truck. You have to pay attention to your partner; you pay attention to the public. You have to be safe; there are lives at stake,” he said.
Out front, Heyges rides along or jogs ahead to the next set of garbage cans while the driver is compacting trash. Without showing signs of tiring, he empties the cans over and over.
When he gets to a driveway with several cans, Plumb jumps out and helps. The quicker they get done, the quicker they can go home.
“I like being outside,” Heyges says of the job. “Exercise. Fresh air. Getting a good workout.”
While this particular day isn’t too cold and a little fog is the closest thing there is to precipitation, the crew has to work Monday through Friday every week, even when it’s pouring rain or dumping snow.
Plumb and Heyges drive one of eight trucks that scour South Shore every weekday morning.
The crews work hard but it’s a thankless job in many ways, according to their supervisor, Bob Rockwell. If a can is full of ice and the workers damage it when trying to break apart the ice, people get angry. If the wind blows a garbage can away, the guys on the collection routes get the blame.
“They always blame it on the driver or the helper: ‘Why did they throw a can away?’ We don’t throw cans away,” he says.
“We try to be be as careful as we can (when trying to break the ice inside). We try to get the garbage out without damaging the can,” he adds.
Other workers of South Tahoe Refuse separate the collected garbage at a materials recovery facility on Ruth Avenue, making sure cans, bottles, plastic jugs, wood, newspapers and other materials get recycled.
“Everyone working here is pretty happy with the job,” says Rockwell, route supervisor. “It’s basically a family-run operation, and it’s a good group of people to work with.
“It’s a good outfit.”
What about finding strange stuff? Things you may not expect to see thrown away?
“You name it, we’ve seen it,” he says. “We see it all the time.”
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