The hands that clean us
A look into the lives and work of the Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Department
ATHENS, GEORGIA — If you were to drive East, away from the bustling downtown Athens area, you would eventually reach Lexington Road.
Just outside the 441 Loop, department stores and busy traffic stops trail after one another. This road eventually weaves through acres of green, sparsely populated land, where the 45mph speed limit is mostly ignored. On the right, a green street sign marks the turn onto Landfill Road, which leads to the Athens-Clarke County Landfill.
The gravel road is rough enough to make your car shake. Compost is the first thing you smell and the second thing you see — the steaming piles of dark matter are concentrated on the right, before one reaches the squat, red scale house, where trucks get weighed upon entry. Normally, plenty of commercial dumpster trucks move slowly up and down Landfill Road, from open to close. Smaller trucks and SUV’s — citizens bringing in their own trash — are more rare. On April 24, it’s more like a ghost town, as Athens-Clarke County finishes up its fifth week under a shelter-in-place order following the spread of COVID-19 to the state.
Athens-Clarke County landfill administrative assistant, John Mincemoyer, stands facing Area 51. It’s the newest cell at the landfill, opened in September 2019 to accommodate the ever-growing waste produced by Oglethorpe and Athens-Clarke County. Area 51 is estimated to have 40 to 50 years of capacity left before the county will have to explore other options of expansion.
“So what happened today?” I ask him. Upon meeting, Mincemoyer had expressed frustration over an earlier incident.
“Just people,” he says, pausing. “Dealing with the public … You’ve got somebody yelling in your face that this is bullshit, and you’re just trying to do your job. It’s really difficult.”
On April 3, in an effort to protect staff members from COVID-19 by limiting exposure to the public, the Solid Waste Department announced an appointment-only system at the landfill for residential customers, following a decision to close to the public on Saturdays. Mincemoyer has endless stories of “belligerent” customers at the landfill — people who get frustrated with him or his staff, calling them “every name in the book.” Since these new guidelines were put in effect following stricter policies across local government departments, Mincemoyer says he’s seen a rise in customers getting vulgar with his staff.
Mincemoyer is one of the 14 full-time staff members at the Athens-Clarke County landfill. Each day about 283 tons of waste are brought in, based on tonnage numbers from fiscal year 2019 — that’s about 566,000 pounds of trash per day. The landfill serves a population of approximately 141,200 people with growing waste disposal needs.
This year, Athens-Clarke County failed to meet a 75% waste reduction goal originally decided upon by the local Mayor and Commission in 2010. According to Solid Waste Director Suki Janssen, a lack of funding is partially responsible. Mincemoyer shared his personal opinions on the matter during one of his shifts in February.
“I don’t know, in this area, they feel like it’s their inalienable right to create as much trash as possible,” Mincemoyer said. “They’re not thinking about the future … Not everybody may feel that way, but that’s just what I see on a daily basis.”
The Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Department has 62 full-time staffers. Thrown in there are the occasional interns as well as part-time staffers with waste collection jobs.
Three primary categories dilleniate lines of work within the department — collections staff, waste reduction and education staff and landfill staff. Overseen by Janssen, the department puts a lot of its energy toward education. By hosting events, having active social media pages and promoting community involvement through its nonprofit organization, Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful, the Solid Waste Department reaches the majority of the county’s population with its messaging — waste reduction is essential, but so is disposing of waste properly.
But education does cost money. According to Janssen, the Solid Waste Department does not receive any general fund money from the Athens-Clarke County local government to cover the majority of its projects or operational costs. Instead, these costs are covered by profits generated at the landfill, which must also be used to cover all recycling operation costs.
For every ton of trash, commercial waste disposal companies and residential customers are charged $42. Leaf and limb disposal runs at $18 per ton, and various other waste — mattresses, paint and tires, for example — require specific disposal fees as well. From June 2018 to July 2019, the landfill generated about $3.6 million from the disposal of commercial, residential, and mixed waste.
“In the next two years, if we don’t figure out a different way to pay for recycling activities, we will have to start cutting programs.”Suki Janssen, Director of Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste
The landfill itself pays a host fee — an estimated $4.20 per ton of waste brought in. This is the highest host fee the landfill has had to pay since beginning operations in 1976. During the most recent expansion into Area 51 — which cost about $4.5 million — the landfill now exists in part in the neighboring Oglethorpe County, meaning a higher host fee. In addition, when companies or residents from neighboring counties dump trash at the landfill but aren’t affiliated with either Oglethorpe or Clarke County, Clarke still has to pay that host fee. That happens fairly often, Mincemoyer said, even with plenty of signage and trained staff.
The landfill pays for itself and will continue to do so, Janssen said. But cuts to education programs and other “nonessential” operations like composting are likely if the local government doesn’t offer financial assistance in the coming years. It’s a Catch-22 — improper waste disposal makes education more necessary, yet at the same time, more financially impossible.
“It was a lofty goal,” said Janssen regarding the 2020 waste reduction goal. “It was an awesome goal, but it came with no money to attain the goal … the Mayor and Commission, if they decide they truly want to attain the goal, at the end, they’ll have to put money behind it to do it.”
(Photos/Rodney Moss) (Video/Rodney Moss)
Rodney Moss has been collecting trash for Athens-Clarke County for just over a year. Previously a driver for FedEx, he joined the Solid Waste team for better job benefits after his daughter was born. She’s two years old now.
Waste collection jobs are considered one of the most dangerous jobs in America, according to reported fatal injuries for 2018. These jobs are only superseded in injury and fatality by roofers, pilots, fishers and loggers.
But Moss sees another side to the trade.
“A lot of trash men are really happy,” Moss said. “And it’s hard to explain because, you know, you’re dealing with things that people don’t don’t want to deal with … I truly love what I do, because I get to meet people that I never would have met before … it is really laid back.”
As an indirect result of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers like Moss and other employees of essential businesses have been receiving outcries of gratitude from the public. It’s a phenomena worth noting — with occasional exceptions and under normal circumstances, most waste collectors would typically go unnoticed during their routes.
“I work downtown, the majority since I’ve been at solid waste,” Moss said. “And, man, when downtown gets really crowded, you feel so invisible. You can be picking up trash and people will walk right past you or even walk in your way … which I have gotten used to, because the perception of, okay, it’s trash and sometimes you feel low.”
In efforts to prevent staff exposure to COVID-19, especially for those with underlying conditions that put them at risk, Janssen implemented scheduling changes for her department’s collections staff and tightened policies regarding sanitation and use of protective wear. In addition, administrators who would typically be in and out of the office are working from home. Janssen said she has some office staff helping fill in the gaps left by short-staffing.
“My office deals primarily with educators that are used to being seen,” Janssen said. These are the administrators, many with college educations and few with experience in waste collection. “They’re being put in positions where they’re not used to it … When you have someone look through you, like truly look through you, it’s pretty unnerving.”
Moss doesn’t let this feeling of invisibility get to him very often. It’s more of a side comment, or a back thought, or part of the job description. On one of his Monday routes, Moss said he had been driving through the neighborhoods off Pulaski Street. He watched as Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz, who lives in the area, “put his hand on his chest” in what Moss thinks was a gesture of thanks. The worst parts of the job are worth this kind of appreciation, Moss said.
“You can be picking up trash and people will walk right past you or even walk in your way.”Rodney Moss, collector for Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste
Even though the county isn’t reaching waste reduction goals, Moss thinks his job makes a difference. At the end of the day, he helps keep his city clean. He asks that residents simply try and do the same. Collections Administrator Korey Jones is confident in the education efforts headed by Janssen and her administrators.
“I think overall, we’ve got the right people in the right place trying to make it better,” Jones said regarding waste reduction. “It’s really on the community to take heed of the education that we put out because we put out a lot of education.”
At over 400 acres, the Athens-Clarke County landfill is like an amusement park for the senses. But how it smells is completely dependent on outdoor conditions. While the compost piles have a significant stench on warmer days, driving directly behind Area 51 on a cold afternoon only results in the occasional whiff of garbage.
Enough odor complaints and a landfill can get shut down. According to policies and permit regulations from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, odors at municipal landfills must be controlled. That’s one rule out of hundreds that solid waste departments across the state must follow to stay in operation.
So Janssen launched the Odor Management Plan in 2015. Approved by the Mayor and Commission, this plan outlines ways in which the Solid Waste Department documents, addresses and minimizes odors at the landfill. Included is an Odor Complaint Form, where residents can place complaints online regarding smells from the landfill they find disagreeable or offensive. Between April 1, 2015 and January 28 of this year, 22 complaints were received by landfill administrators.
On February 19, John Mincemoyer is taking odor data. It’s something he does on most days, per the policies outlined in the Odor Management Plan.
From a black bag in his truck, he pulls out what looks like a megaphone if it were stretched into a thin tube. It’s a field olfactometer, also known as a Nasal Ranger, used to quantify the strength of odors.
Mincemoyer goes through how it works — through a series of apertures, the device lets users determine if an odor is strong enough to cause concern. On a piece of cardboard, he also documents the sample point location, time and weather conditions.
At the first sample point right at the landfill’s entrance gates, Mincemoyer’s data shows no signs of odor. According to Nasal Ranger data for the past three years, this is the case on most days with the exception of the occasional “trace compost odor.”
Regardless of the data, Mincemoyer says his staff still deals with complaints regarding odor. Although it may not be reflective in the online complaint forms, people seem to think the landfill is responsible for any and all bad smells, Mincemoyer says. Back in September of last year, three companies engaged in a lawsuit against Oglethorpe County following what local government officials considered improper disposal of waste from poultry slaughterhouses. This waste was being sprayed on nearby agricultural land, but the proximity of this disposal to the Athens-Clarke County landfill made people suspicious of how the landfill was managing their odors. Further investigations cleared the landfill of any suspicions.
“It’s kind of like we’re the BoogeyMan, if you will,” Mincemoyer says while leaning against his truck. “If there’s something going on, it’s our problem, when 99% of time, it’s not us at all. Granted, trash does smell. Everyone knows it. The interesting thing to me is everyone creates it.”
It’s clear that discrepancies exist between people and their waste. According to capacity numbers for all of the municipal and construction/demolition landfills across the state, Georgians create over 18 million tons of trash per fiscal year.
The Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Departments wants to improve. During her time as director, Janssen has made it her mission to encourage alternative waste disposal. The landfill’s composting operations were launched in 2011, and CHARM — the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials — opened in 2015 to help curb unnecessary landfill waste.
This Summer, Janssen said she was planning to roll out new waste reduction goals in partnership with the Athens-Clarke County Office of Sustainability. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly interrupted long term goals. With so many plans up in the air, in addition to adapting solid waste operations, Janssen is staying focussed on keeping her staff safe and protected from the uncertainty of the future. She said representatives from her department have been discussing hazard pay for her staff with the local Mayor and Commission.
By staggering shifts at the landfill and implementing strict cleaning protocols, Janssen and other solid waste administrators are taking necessary precautions to avoid infection. Every day, staff are reminded of social distancing guidelines over the radio on top of being sent home with educational materials regarding sanitation. In addition, Janssen and other administrators pack daily snacks for the collections staff to keep them from stopping during their routes.
“I wouldn’t be doing a good job as a director if I did not advocate for my staff,” Janssen said. “Not one single person has complained or told me they would not come in because they’re scared … Are they skipping and jumping to come to work? Probably not. But some of them are taking on extra shifts, too.”
Back at the landfill, Mincemoyer is grateful for the way things have been handled. He speaks highly of Janssen’s “proactive” response to the pandemic. Of course, his biggest concern is always the public. He worries about the future, unsure of whether waste reduction goals will ever be met. People are geared a certain way, he said in a recent phone call, and even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, he’s not surprised that many customers at the landfill are putting themselves and his staff at risk just to dispose of a couple bags of trash.
“Actually nothing for me, job wise, has changed,” Mincemoyer said. “But I’m actually shocked that people are still creating the amount of garbage that they were before, or even more … I just don’t understand how in waste production … why can’t people just do a better job?”