The alarm rings at 3 a.m. Rosie Lopez gets out of bed in her Phoenix home and puts on dark pants, a long-sleeve T-shirt, work boots and a yellow reflective vest.
At 8 a.m., she is three hours into her workday and seated behind the wheel of a 60-foot truck. A trailer hitched to the back carries a two-ton loader tractor.
She carefully parallel parks the truck outside a stucco house in Peoria that has a massive pile of mesquite tree branches and torn household furniture covering the front sidewalk. Lopez quickly unhitches the trailer, moves onto the seat of the tractor and cranks the eight-foot metal arm into action. With the help of her partner, she loads the pile of rubbish onto the truck in minutes.
The 46-year-old mother of two is the only female solid waste equipment operator to work for Peoria and she is the best rear-loading truck driver in the department. Actually, she’s the best in the state.
In April, Lopez won the rear-loading category of a statewide garbage truck driving competition. The cleverly named “Road-E-O” is an annual event sponsored by the Solid Waste Association of North America. Next, Lopez will compete against garbage truck drivers from across the country in the international competition Saturday on the Gila River Reservation.
“We kind of had to coax Rosie to [compete] but once she did it, she was excited about it and it excited all of us when she won first place,” said Aaron Redd, Peoria solid waste supervisor.
Lopez began her career as a garbage truck driver 15 years ago in Phoenix. She later worked for Tempe and has worked as a driver in Peoria for three years.
Even as a child, this was a job she wanted to pursue.
“When I was little, 8 or 9 years old, I used to watch [the garbage truck drivers] as they collected the cans by hand and I thought it was the coolest thing. And here I am now,” Lopez said.
She will be the only woman among 14 competitors from Arizona in the international Road-E-O on Saturday. The event is split into two categories — sanitation collection, which involves the vehicles that gather trash from residences and businesses; and disposal operation, which are the the bulldozers and scrapers that work at landfills.
More than 70 drivers from every region of the country will test their skills on one of nine types of vehicles. The competitors have to drive their truck between cones, park at various angles and complete pre- and post-trip examinations, all while being timed.
Lopez said she did not do formal training for the competition because her everyday job is all the practice she needs. She is nervous for the competition, but also excited to compete against drivers from other states.
“Every day I am getting better,” she said. “As long as you have control of the truck, you could be the best driver.”
Operating back-loading vehicles is just one of the many responsibilities Lopez has as a solid waste equipment operator for Peoria.
Depending on the day, she could be clearing piles of bulk trash or maneuvering levers of a side-loader truck to empty up to 1,200 curbside garbage cans in one 10-hour shift.
The competition is open to any Solid Waste Association of North America chapter, which also are in multiple locations across Canada and in Puerto Rico. So far, no competitors outside of the U.S. have entered this year’s event, though.
The event gives solid waste employees a chance to represent their city and prove their skills as an equipment operator. It also serves as a morale booster for workers who the general public do not often think of, said Stewart Kent, deputy public works director for Peoria.
“I think a lot of times these sorts of services are often seen as invisible,” he said. “People put their garbage can out in the morning. They come home at the end of the day and expect it to be empty. This was a real opportunity, when Rosie won, to highlight the service.”
The International Road-E-O is a family event, hosted in a different U.S. city every year. The last time the competition was held in Arizona was in 2010, at the Gila River Arena in Glendale.