One Man's Trash


We hear the sounds of their trucks at the break of day. Our kids are excited to see them, and cannot wait to watch them drive by. Who are these mystery men? They are Syracuse’s sanitation workers: men who work tirelessly to pick up trash and keep our city clean.

Throughout our time with the city, the i-team has met with many people from the Department of Public Works (DPW). We’ve visited streets to watch road reconstruction, participated in weekly road recon meetings, and spoken with DPW workers at their job sites. One thing we’ve learned during our interactions with city workers is that many of the infrastructure employees, whether they are in street repair, sewers or the Department of Water, started their careers as City of Syracuse sanitation workers.

We knew that our team needed to better understand the job that so many other employees have held. So, in hopes of garnering a new perspective about sanitation work, we strapped on our work boots and set out to spend a day with a sanitation crew.

The morning started at 6:30am when we met with Dave Davis, Superintendent of Sanitation. Dave is a tall, cheerful individual and greeted us with open arms. He gave us some safety instructions, assigned us to a truck, and sent us on our way. Our route took us to the Southside of Syracuse. We threw trash, learned about operating the truck machinery, and spoke with the crew about some of the daily challenges they face.

Time flew by, and before we knew it, our route was finished.  During our time with the sanitation crew we had some great conversations and many takeaways:

  1. Sanitation is not for kids: This is a very difficult job, and it must be approached with safety in mind. Getting on and off the truck while rapidly picking up trash that varies in shape, size, and weight can be taxing on the body. We have a newfound respect for sanitation workers as they have an almost thankless job that plays a pivotal (and a largely unrecognized) role in society.

  2. Sanitation has a data-driven culture: The sanitation division compiles and reviews trash collection data. Typically, crews have an equal number of heavy and light trash days, so the data that is analyzed allows supervisors to decide where to send different teams.

  3. The shortest trash route, isn’t always the best trash route: A trash route strictly focused on the shortest distance might ignore some intricacies including terrain and traffic patterns. Drivers may take a route that allows all of the trash to be picked up while the crew is traveling downhill to reduce some of the physical stress of the job. They will also try to pick up trash around a school early in the morning, so that there is less traffic and fewer children in the vicinity.

  4. Training needs to be integrated into their work: We’ve spoken with many stakeholders, crew leaders and laborers about job training. Although training is critical, we understand that every moment someone is being trained is a moment a road isn't being paved, or a water system repair isn’t being made. We asked the sanitation workers about their training.  They said “If we stop to train, who is going to do our routes?,” and “You came here and you didn’t know anything two hours ago, why can’t I train you here on the job?”  While we were on the back of the truck we started to think about ways to integrate ongoing training throughout everyday workflows.

During our day we were able to share some of our ideas for improvement with the workers. Our conversations gave us a lot to consider and provided us with guidance to refine our ideas.  In the days ahead, we will continue to comb through our ideas for improvement by completing logic models. We look forward to sharing more about our ideas and logic models with you here. In the meantime, the next time you see a sanitation worker make sure you tell them thank you.  They deserve it!