Garbageman collects admiration by transforming waste industry

Attilio Borgatello (left), Aldo Bachigalupi, Mario Stefanelli and Terso Biconi collect trash in 1962, when trucks had four-man crews.

Attilio Borgatello (left), Aldo Bachigalupi, Mario Stefanelli and Terso Biconi collect trash in 1962, when trucks had four-man crews.

When Leonard Stefanelli was a senior at the old Polytechnic High School in San Francisco, the dean of boys, Paul Hungerford, called him into his office. Hungerford used to be a football coach, and Stefanelli was a tough, skinny kid with a bad attitude. But Hungerford liked him and thought it was time for some tough love.

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“Stefanelli,” the dean told him, “I know you have some brains, but if you go outside in that world and f— around like you f— around in this school, you will end up picking up garbage.”

That is exactly what happened. He went into the garbage business.

Stefanelli started hauling garbage at 19, rose to be “a boss scavenger,” was a shareholder in Sunset Scavenger at 23, became president of the company at 31, helped overhaul the industry, became a solid waste expert, made some nasty enemies, and got fired after 20 years.

It is a wild story, and Stefanelli tells it in a new book, “Garbage,” published last fall by the University of Nevada. Sunset Scavenger, the company he headed, has turned into Recology Inc., a billion-dollar, employee-owned enterprise with 45 operating companies, and more than 800,000 customers in three states. “And this was built by a bunch of garbagemen, not by some Wall Street guy in a suit,” Stefanelli said.

Stefanelli is 83 now and mostly retired. A native San Franciscan with the old-time San Francisco accent, he has a growly voice. He is a plain talker, his words laced with salty images. He’s a man who likes to talk about his life and times, the hard work, the problems, his family, his friends, his enemies.

In his book, he is quick to point out his trade was not a refined one. “The garbage business is what most people historically assume to be the lowest rung on the social ladder of life,” he writes.

In conversation he talks easily about the hard work garbagemen used to do — how they carried heavy cans on their backs up and down steep stairs and packed every load up to the back of the open truck. They also had to sort the garbage to pick out bottles, cardboard and other usable goods, and take the rest of it to the dump.

This is not one of the fine arts. Stefanelli does not talk about “trash” or “rubbish.” It’s garbage to him, and it contains rotten fruit, maggots sometimes, old papers, junk, sour milk, all the stuff people throw away. It stinks.

But when Stefanelli talks about the world of garbage collection, it is with pride. “I enjoyed working on the truck,” he said. “It was a macho thing. I was proud to be a scavenger.”

San Francisco produces a million tons of waste a year, and somebody has to pick it up. It became the job of Italian immigrants, who came to this country with no skills. Some, like A.P. Giannini, became famous. But others did the dirty jobs.

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There was a hierarchy in this; it was tribal. The garbagemen were all from the hill country around Genoa, and Stefanelli talks of the Genovese virtues: hard work, being careful with money.

They were also suspicious of outsiders. They did not talk about their business. He remembers a warning from an old-timer: “Tu parli troppo.” “You talk too much.”

They were also very conservative, at least in business. Until the mid-1960s, garbage collection was done the old way: Four men on a truck, hauling the trash, a labor-intensive, backbreaking job. Stefanelli wanted to change it, “bring it out of the dark ages,” as he called the old ways. He wanted new ideas, and new modern trucks and equipment.

He and his allies pulled a kind of coup against the old guard and got himself elected company president. Eventually, Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal, the other San Francisco company, got new equipment, developed modern methods of trash disposal, including a big transfer station — the largest in the world — at the southern edge of the city.

Environmental laws changed, and the garbage industry had to find ways to build safer, better and cleaner places for solid waste. On Stefanelli’s watch, the company had a hand in a landfill in Mountain View that later became a golf course, a park, and eventually the site of the Shoreline Amphitheatre.

Sunset Scavenger also expanded, buying smaller companies. But not everyone in the company liked Stefanelli’s programs or his style, and in 1986 he was forced out. “I was fired,” he said. He went into other businesses and is now back as a senior consultant with Recology.

It’s a new world now. The customers sort the refuse into blue, green and brown bins. The collection trucks — often with only a one-man crew — use mechanical loaders. It’s cleaner and better. And Stefanelli had a big hand in this transformation.

“It was nasty work back then,” he said. “It’s not that way today.”