The trashman cometh
Consumerism means job security for garbage hauler

Colleen Cason
Staff writer
Published Friday December 31, 1999

 The city of Oxnard spends $50 an hour to keep Marty Martello and his truck on the road.

Dial-a-Ride spends $30 an hour to operate a service to shuttle Oxnard senior citizens to their medical appointments.

The discrepancy is easily if not comfortably explained. Martello transports trash. We want it out of sight and out of mind as quickly as possible.

Not just because it's ugly and it stinks, believes consumer watcher James B. Twitchell. But because it's the lipstick on the collar that gives away our secret love affair with stuff. Our garbage speaks with unvarnished honesty to our eating, drinking and spending habits.

This liaison also puts food on the table for the Martello family of four. The 36-year-old Oxnard native hauls garbage from the Del Norte Regional Transfer Station to landfills in Santa Paula and Simi Valley.

At 9 a.m., on his second run of the day, he coaxes his Kenworth into gear, bound for Simi Valley. It is a blessedly cool, breezy summer morning, and the truck's cab smells only faintly of rotting citrus. What's a little penicillin in the air when a while back, he had to haul dead fish that had been trapped in the filters of Reliant Energy's Mandalay Bay generating station. That was some serious stink.

As he negotiates the tight turn onto Highway 118 in El Rio he says, "I never thought I'd see the day we'd truck trash out of the city."

The Del Norte transfer station opened three years ago when Oxnard's Bailard landfill reached capacity and had to close. The 16-acre Del Norte complex exists to take trash from smaller trucks that pick up at the curb in Oxnard, Port Hueneme, the Navy base at Point Mugu, El Rio and Somis and to transfer that trash to the 16-ton behemoths Martello drives to the dump.

It also is a major recycling center, taking in and recycling 6,000 tons a month of glass, newspapers, plastics, aluminum cans and scrap metal among other things. By next year, California cities are required to divert 50 percent of their trash through recycling.

Currently, only Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley are likely to meet the deadline. Despite an aggressive recycling program, Oxnard is at 38 percent. The city's steady improvement, however, probably will buy it more time, believes Geoff Folsom, who finds markets for Del Norte's recyclables.

Recession proof

Martello never thought he'd be a trash man, either. A baseball slugger, he hoped to get an athletic scholarship to a big college. But he had to drop out of Oxnard College to earn a living. He and his wife, Nenise, have a son, 16, and a daughter, 7. Now he coaches their Little League teams.

Martello got on with the city's parks department. When that job was eliminated, he transferred to the city garage and then that got cut. So he wanted to work for a department that wouldn't have layoffs.

Now he hauls trash four days a week, 10 hours a day. It has its ups and downs he says. He has to deal with traffic jams and road rage. "Do they think I'm driving a Porsche here?" he asked.

From the cab 6 feet above the road, Martello sees the world through a trash man's eyes. The strawberry fields that hold the promise of sweet berries to consumers cast off tons of plastic sheeting every spring. Only a fraction has ever been recycled because it's hard to handle the flimsy plastic.

The good economy means more building. That translates not only into new homes or offices, but also to construction waste, which makes up 12 percent of the volume of our landfills.

From his observations, he believes there is more trash in poorer neighborhoods than in richer ones. Anyway, it's different. Studies show the poor tend to do more auto repair in their yards and throw out car parts and even used motor oil. The rich can afford to have tradespeople cart away parts and chemicals from their yards.

He's also seen the "not in my backyard" syndrome as it applies to trash. It was fine for other cities to have their garbage trucks rumbling through the streets of Oxnard when they dumped at Bailard. But now the shoe's on the other foot, they don't like it, he says. Moorpark is trying to ban trucks like his from using Los Angeles Avenue.

But on this day, Martello also observes a field of radiant orange mums. "Every day they get more ready to pick," he said, letting his eyes leave the road for just a second.

Once at the Simi Valley Landfill, he comes to a stop on the scale. Today he's carrying the maximum he can hold -- 23 tons of trash, or the equivalent of a week's worth of garbage from the Oxnard Shores-Mandalay Bay neighborhoods.

There are eight trucks ahead of him. Some days, the Simi landfill opens to trucks from Los Angeles County. In return, L.A. dumps will let trucks from Ventura County tip at Calabasas and occasionally Chiquita Canyon, near Six Flags Magic Mountain.

"Los Angeles has an outrageous amount of trash," observed Martello. Ventura County is no slouch. Del Norte alone handles 1,100 tons a day. Simi Valley and Santa Paula's Toland Road landfills are expected to be filled up in 17 years. Right now, Toland Road closes after it's taken in 15,000 tons in a day, often by noon.

When Martello's turn to dump arrives, he backs up to the edge and pushes a button. The truck begins to shimmy as the hydraulic "walker" coaxes the cargo out of the truck and over the side with a rhythmic boom, boom, boom.

Call it waste, solid waste or solid municipal waste, garbage by any name reeks. Pouring from the back of the truck is a stinking stream -- 4 feet high and 20 feet long -- of food wrappers, newspaper inserts, milk cartons, juice cans, disposable diapers, grass clippings all covered in an oily slop of bread crusts, orange peels, lettuce and kitty litter. And to the question paper or plastic, the answer most often has to be plastic.

Seagulls caw and swoop down on the rank mountain. About 65 percent of it is biodegradable food, believes William Rathje, a University of Arizona archaeologist whose Garbage Project studies castoff artifacts of modern life. Rathje, who bores into landfills to get his specimens, has found hot dogs still recognizable after 15 years. He uses newspapers to date his finds. They are 14 percent of a landfill's volume, the largest single item. So much for the theory organic matter biodegrades in a landfill.

It takes about 20 minutes for the hydraulic walker to push the bulk of the load into the landfill. What it leaves behind, Martello must sweep out.

It's impossible to be around garbage without getting it on you. "It's not nice, clean work, but it's a living. There's money in trash," he said.

-- Sources: Personal interviews and the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College report "Regional Solid Waste Management in Southern California for the New Millennium"; "Lead Us Into Temptation" by James B. Twitchell; "My Shopping Trip with Andre," a report by Consumers Research Magazine; "All Consuming Passion," a report by the Center for a New American Dream; "Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage" by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy; Ventura County Star archives; the figure on how much it costs to operate a trash truck was calculated by Grant Dunne, management analyst for the city of Oxnard.