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Garbage hauling no longer a dirty job but still essential to city life, Teamster says

Mike Angus left the business world to drive a garbage truck — a job he unexpectedly loves.

Behind the wheel of his 40,000-pound front-loader, commercial garbage truck driver Mike Angus seems more like the pilot of an advanced machine than a simple trash picker.

With a series of deft flicks of a joystick and button presses, he guides a massive set of forks protruding from his garbage truck into corresponding pockets on the side of a dumpster outside of a condo building in Burr Ridge. Hydraulics raise the bin over the truck and flip it so that hundreds of pounds of trash spills into the hopper below as a heavy blade smashes it and scoops it into an inner chamber.

Seconds later, the dumpster is eased back onto the ground, and Angus drives off to seek the next container. Then it’s catch, flip, crush, repeat.

Trash collection is often the first thing to spring to mind when it comes to the old cliche: “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.”

But the not-so-dirty secret about waste management in 2019 is that specialized technology has made much of it relatively spotless work.

“The stereotype is that when you’re dealing with garbage, there’s a smell and dirt and grime everywhere,” said Angus, 48. “You get stuff on your boots and gloves sometimes, but it comes off easily and, really, I stay pretty clean on an average day.”

Mike Angus, a driver for Waste Management represented by the Teamsters Union, poses for a portrait in his truck in southwest suburban Burr Ridge.
Mike Angus, a driver for Waste Management represented by the Teamsters Union, poses for a portrait in his truck in southwest suburban Burr Ridge.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Not that it’s easy.

During the workweek, Angus wakes up in the dead of night and by 4 a.m. punches the clock at Waste Management Inc., a Texas-based garbage collection giant with roots in Chicago. Drivers are required to attend a brief safety meeting and vehicle inspection, then each launches by about 5:30 a.m.

He begins his regular route by emptying the dumpsters at Nalco Energy Services, a water treatment plant in Bedford Park, then travels to various industrial and commercial sites scattered across the Southwest Side of Chicago and a handful of near south suburbs.

The goal is to haul roughly 21 tons of garbage to a transfer facility on an average day in about three trips. It’s a tricky balance: It’s illegal to carry more than 16,000 pounds at once, but too light of a load is inefficient. Because there’s no scale inside his hopper, Angus calculates the weight of his garbage by feel.

“You learn how the truck reacts and how it handles to use your best guessimation,” said Angus. “It’s just something that comes with experience.”

Furniture adds a degree of difficulty because a piece like — say — an old sleeper sofa tossed into a dumpster resists being compacted and takes up more space. Drivers also have to factor in the elements to their calculations because rain and snow add extra weight to a load.

And it’s not as if Angus can do everything from inside the comfort of his cab. Cardboard boxes, bags and various other pieces of refuge can fall out of the dumpster during a transfer, and drivers are required to pick them up.

“It can definitely be a very physical job,” he said.

Still, it’s one that Angus says he unexpectedly loves. A native of Lockport, he had spent much of his career in the business world working for various start-up companies before moving back to the Chicago area in 2003 after a stint in Houston, Texas.

The transition to waste management has meant a steadier career with an incredible amount of job security — there’s no such thing as outsourcing trash collection overseas — and good benefits through Teamsters Local 731.

Plus, there’s a sense that what he’s doing is essential to life in the city.

“We’re removing the garbage in a safe manner and preventing environmental hazards to communities and more pests like raccoons and rats,” said Angus. “I don’t want to live in a world where we don’t exist.”