In focus: City trash crews deal with heavier loads, smaller crews as people stay home

Gerald Williams rides the back of a city trash truck while emptying bins in the Pine Valley neighborhood Thursday morning. He implored residents to wear gloves or wipe the bins down and wash their hands after taking in their trash bins to avoid cross-contamination. “Because I touch about 800 to 1,000 trash cans a day,” he said. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Robert “Bobby” Way has been driving the streets of Wilmington for 23 years as a city worker, so when things change around town — as they have since Governor Roy Cooper passed into law a statewide stay-at-home order in mid-March — he is a keen observer.

Although the fleet of city trucks that pick up trash, recycled waste, and debris encounter 35% less traffic on the roads, he has noticed loads are becoming heavier while he navigates around more kids and families riding their bikes and walking around their neighborhoods.

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“More people are at home making meals or going out and getting meals, instead of dumping trash at work or wherever else they go out,” Way said while taking a break from his route in the Pine Valley neighborhood Thursday morning. He wore a blue bandana face mask and sunglasses.

According to city spokesperson Dylan Lee, projected April weight totals for trash, recycled waste, and yard waste — if they remain on their current pace — will increase significantly compared to the past five months.

Above: Graph based on total monthly numbers provided by the City of Wilmington from November 2019 to the first week of April. The month of April’s projection is based on the first week’s totals multiplied by four weeks. (Port City Daily chart)

The average monthly weight for trash collected from November to March was 1,982 tons. Based on the first week of April, that number would jump to 2,496 tons by the end of the month — a 25% increase from that average. Over the same period, projected recycled waste would jump by 26% and yard waste by 96%.

Way noted that after talking to some of the brush drivers, the latter number was also driven up by a storm that hit the region last week, but mostly by the increase of people doing yard work and working on other home projects because they have much more free time than usual.

Way’s two-man crew

Driver Robert “Bobby’ Way looks back at Gerald Williams emptying the final bin on Jeb Stuart Drive. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

The social distancing guidelines put into place due to the spreading Covid-19 pandemic have also forced the city to stagger crews while only allowing one man riding the back of each truck, as opposed to two. Although these restrictions — combined with the increased weight of residents’ trash bins — have slowed pick-up production for most crews, Way said it hasn’t slowed his own operation too much.

“On a lot of other trucks it slows them down,” Way said. “But I have an exceptional guy on the back of mine.”

That guy is Gerald Williams, nearing his fifth year on the job. Being the only one riding the back of the truck makes his job more difficult, but that doesn’t bother him.

“I just don’t think about it,” Williams said. “I just do it. It’s a job. I’m glad to do it; I love my job. Once you love doing a job it don’t become a job no more. It’s just like a hobby.”

Listen to the conversation: Port City Daily’s reporter chats with City of Wilmington trash collectors Bobby Way and Gerald Williams.

Cruising northeast on Jeb Stuart Drive, parallel to the golf course at the Pine Valley Country Club, Williams was working quickly, jumping from one side to the other to fill the role of two back-truck workers.

According to Way, there are about 80 employees working on the city’s waste collection trucks. Although things have changed — supervisors take everyone’s temperature before they clock in every morning, he cleans the truck twice daily, and he misses the camaraderie of the early morning coffee hangouts before their shifts begin — he said the efficient teamwork between himself and Williams has kept things relatively normal.

As for the bandana he wears daily, he said it’s just one extra precaution to keep everyone safe.

“It’s a little hotter than normal, a little bit harder to breathe that way … we wear them for everybody else,” Way said.

Bag the dog hair and cat litter please

The Covid-19 regulations have also changed Way’s work hours, now starting at 6 in the morning instead of 7. This means people need to be more prepared, perhaps bringing out their trash the night before instead of in the morning.

“We’ve seen a lot of people [running out in their boxers] to try and beat the truck in the morning,” Way said. “If they can get it out the night before, that’d be real helpful.”

He also encouraged residents to bag everything up, especially things like tissues and packing peanuts.

“Because this little breeze we feel right now will blow all of that all over the road. We pick up everything we can but we can’t chase every little peanut that falls on the ground,” Way said.

Williams concurred, adding a few other particulars that are difficult to deal with on a breezy day: unbagged animal hair, sawdust, and cat litter.

“You got the sun beaming on you, you got hair on your face, then you got sawdust,” Williams said. “And cat litter — that’s the thing I hate most. Cause the bag’s open and the wind’s blowing and it hits you in the eye, then you be rubbing your eye. You’re not supposed to put your hand on your face, but you can’t help get in the corner of your eyes.”

“Just bag everything,” he encouraged.

He also said he worries about cross contamination during the pandemic since he touches approximately 800 to 1,000 trash bins in a single day. Residents can help by wearing gloves when they put out their bins and retrieve them, by sanitizing the bins, and by washing their hands after touching them.

“Because you never know what’s on that trash can, when I get through with it anyway … I don’t know what I could be getting into,” Williams said.

Robert “Bobby” Way as he pauses on his route in the Pine Valley neighborhood. “[The bandana’s] alright, it’s a little hotter than normal. A little bit harder to breathe that way. We’re just trying to protect the public. They take our temperature every morning to make sure we’re still good to go. These are just for caution — we wear them for everybody else,” Way said. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Gerald Williams wears a bandana to protect himself and others from contracting the novel coronavirus. He said he worries about cross contamination, encouraging residents to sanitize their bins before and after trash pick-up days. “I don’t know what I could be getting into.” (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Gerald Williams rides the back of the truck while hopping down to empty each bin. “On a lot of other trucks [the smaller crews] slows them down,” Bobby Way, the driver, said. “But I have an exceptional guy on the back of mine.”

Send tips and comments to the reporter at, @markdarrough on Twitter, or (970) 413-3815

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