On the garbage beat with Spokane’s Garbage Crew

Head down the right back alley in Spokane and you can find almost anything.

That’s especially true of the drivers snaking their way through more than 100 miles of backyard paths to collect trash in automated trucks, and the on-foot crews of “swampers” cleaning up in areas where even the most precise modern equipment can’t go.

“This truck hasn’t moved in years,” said Chris Spurlock, pointing to a pickup jutting into his path as he guided his 20-ton diesel collection truck through a particularly troubling alley near the NorthTown Mall on Friday.

Two yipping dogs jumped outside his right driver’s side window, their heads bobbing over the fence line.

“There’s my friends that always say hi to me,” said Spurlock, whose been collecting trash for the city for a decade.

For drivers like Spurlock, and the two-man teams that still lift the city’s brown and blue trash and recycle carts into rear-loading trucks by hand, the biggest challenge is beneath their feet. Nasty ruts and gashes, caused by years of neglect and heavy use by garbage trucks, can slow route collection, injure workers and mangle equipment.

“Some of the trucks have tweaked so much, they’ve twisted the frame and fuses on your truck pop out,” Spurlock said. “It gets pretty gnarly.”

The city has a plan moving forward, and it’s being funded by the growth in garbage collection. This year, the city’s Solid Waste Department will give street crews a half million dollars to level out some of the city’s worst back alleys.

Last year, Spokane collected a record amount of trash, said Scott Windsor, director of the city’s solid waste management.

“We’re back ahead of where we were before the Great Recession,” he said.

The strategy is intended not only to assist trash collectors, but also property owners in all areas of town who use the alleys for access to backyard parking, tool shops and garages. Spurlock’s route took him through portions of northwest Spokane on Friday, through legacy neighborhoods like West Central, Audubon and Shadle where rear alleys are commonplace.

“I’m hearing from a lot of folks that really need alley repairs,” said City Councilwoman Karen Stratton. “In West Central, they can’t even drive through their alleys. It’s a mess.”

Trash collection is provided on 104 of Spokane’s 197 miles of rear alleys, according to the city. Thirty-nine of those miles are unpaved, allowing ruts to open that were filled with murky water Friday. Some homeowners have taken to their own forms of repair, which can sometimes be counterproductive, Spurlock said.

“They’ll take chunks of concrete and try to fill the hole, and that’s fine and dandy,” Spurlock said. “But what most people do is, they put compost and yard waste in there. All it does is make the holes bigger.”

Pockmarked alleys pose a particular danger to the two-man crews who still serve some of the city’s smallest alleys. These “swampers” still pick up trash the old-fashioned way, with a slight modern twist.

Collectors Mike Beeler and Alex Mizner weaved through narrow spans near Audobon Elementary early Friday morning, their boots crunching on a fresh sheet of snow and ice. When conditions get really slippy, the swampers wear cleats.

Both men said they preferred working outside their truck, a rear-loading, natural gas-powered machine made for tighter squeezes than Spurlock’s rig. While the city has been moving more toward the automated machines, which include grabber arms operated in the cab by controls, there are still 15 rear-loading trash routes that use two-member crews, including one member who sometimes ride on a ledge on the back of the truck. Fifty of the city’s trash routes are fully automated and only have drivers.

“You’re sitting there, like at a computer with a joystick all day,” said Mizner, in between passes from can to the back of his truck. “It just jostles the cab.”

The work isn’t completely without the conveniences of modern engineering. Two arms on the back of the truck do the heavy lifting, saving these modern-day swampers from having to heave the city’s standard 68-gallon trash carts above their heads.

Spurlock started work as a swamper, but later qualified for a promotion to drive one of the single-person, automated trucks. The move grants the collector more seniority and pay, and gives them more opportunities to bid for routes and vacation time.

“This isn’t as hard on your body,” Spurlock said.

Still, he misses working on his feet, and the camaraderie of a two-member crew.

“I miss the physical activity, and being outside, getting more fresh air,” he said.

The type of service Spurlock, Beeler and Mizner provide was almost eliminated from Spokane city streets.

In the final months of his administration, then-Mayor Dennis Hession proposed eliminating alley garbage collection as a way to save money during tight economic times. A 2006 report commissioned by the city indicated Spokane would save more than $440,000 a year by automating all of its trash collection services, which would have required elimination of alley service.

Hession approved the suspension of alley pickup to about 2,200 customers on the north side, prompting an uproar from residents of the Corbin Park neighborhood. Many of them wheeled carts to Hession’s campaign events in 2007, a contest he eventually lost to Mary Verner, who re-instated the trash pickup and purchased smaller automated trucks to serve the alleys.

Hession defended the decision in an interview this week, saying his position – that those with alley service were “subsidized” by those who wheeled their carts to the curb in front of their house – hadn’t changed.

“There are people that would say that was really your downfall,” Hession said of the decision, referring to his electoral defeat. “I don’t think that’s true.”

Still, there hasn’t been any push to remove alley service since 2007, even as the city embarked on a revision of its trash collection routes to coincide with opening the new Central Service Center on Nelson Street, where all of the city’s fleet services are now headquartered.

Spurlock, who joined the city’s trash collection crew from a job as a commercial tire technician, called his gig “one of the best kept secrets.” The job will be even sweeter with a smoother ride.

“If we could take out a lot of the bumps, it would make everyone’s lives easier,” he said.