When I was twelve my family lived on a small, dry piece of land in rural Texas. Since we lived far outside of any city limits, we couldn’t rely on services like water (we had a well), sewage (we had a septic tank), or sanitation (we had a 12-year-old boy and a 50-gallon burn barrel). Before my weekend free-time could begin, I’d have a list of chores to get done, including burning the week’s trash and burying the ashes in a pit dug in the back field.
One terrible Saturday I learned a valuable lesson about not burning spray paint cans when the wind is gusting at speeds that would get you ticketed in a school zone. The explosion was small but the brush was dry, and the ensuing fire came perilously close to my neighbors on three sides. Fortunately, the intervention of God and the Eastland County Volunteer Fire Department contained the blaze, saving my hide and several homes.
That was the day I gained an undying appreciation for firefighters—and sanitation workers. We don’t fully value the work of “garbagemen” until we have to live without their services.
Considering that urban civilization would degenerate into chaos and disease without their labor, society is shockingly unappreciative of the men and women who maintain our system of sanitation disposal. It’s not surprising, then, that few people are eager for such a career considering the work is thankless, dirty, and dangerous. Indeed, astonishingly dangerous: Sanitation workers have twice the fatality rates of police offers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters.
But the work also requires a special type of knowledge and intelligence. Anthropologist Robin Nagle joined the ranks of the underappreciated sanitation workers of New York City and discovered what life in the mysterious world of trash collection was really like: