I recently witnessed an interaction between a homeowner trying to deal with having his green bin container picked up by Waste Management. The driver of the vehicle collecting green or compostable waste was trying to explain to the homeowner that the materials he had placed in his green waste bin were not acceptable.
Reactions most of the time in these moments tend to be rational discussions. Who knows what pressures this man was feeling at the moment when he was witnessing a Waste Management driver going through his green bin that was filled with plastic bubble-wrap shipping envelopes and cardboard that had multiple layers of packing tape adhering to its sides. Plastic shipping envelopes and packing tape do not compost.
For everything the driver pointed to and pulled out the bin, the man got angrier and angrier. The man lost all ability to listen to the simple truth — he had placed multiple pieces of trash in his green waste bin that was supposed to be filled with plants, food waste, soiled pizza boxes, and compostable materials free of contaminated items.
What struck me as sad was that from the moment the driver tried to engage the man, the homeowner was angry and condescending in a way that implied he knew more than the driver. The driver’s tone was respectful and knowledgeable. He appeared to be well trained in what was acceptable in the bin and was calm during the customer interaction.
When the homeowner said, “I served in the military. I am a teacher. The customer is always right and I think you are calling me a liar,” any room for establishing rapport was over. The homeowner wanted to exploit a feeling of superiority over the person he saw as just a garbage man — who in his mind was not his equal. The man requested to speak to a supervisor, which lowered the tension.
Plenty of people get confused about what goes in each of their bins — recycling, green waste and trash. This homeowner was arrogant about his level of knowledge and missed the opportunity to have a positive discussion with a person trained in what goes in each bin, where it goes, and why contaminants are detrimental in the recycling and compost process.
Interactions about what is trash and what is recyclable can take place tens of thousands of times each day across our country. Solid waste collection is an essential public health service. Proper collection and interim storage of trash reduces rodents year-round and fly populations in warmer months. If each of us had to manage our solid waste disposal and recycling needs individually, things would get ugly, littered and unhealthy very quickly.
Waste Management happens to be the largest provider of solid waste services in our country and their driver was doing his job. The services they provide are structured by local contract, compliant with a King County interlocal agreement for transfer and disposal services, and must meet rules and regulations defined within state law.
The local contract spells out what is acceptable in each container as well as the city’s defined services for commercial and multifamily housing. In Federal Way, items acceptable for recycling are metal (steel and tin cans), glass jars and bottles, paper and cardboard that is clean and dry, plastic bottles, jugs and tubs — all numbers accepted (1-7). The green bin is fairly straightforward as well: yard waste, plants, food scraps and leftovers, paper that must be uncoated (not shiny or plastic coated).
The rest of it goes in the trash bin. Too many of us think that it can all be sorted out by someone else if I make a mistake. Multiply our mistakes over thousands of bins per day with varying degrees of contamination and it requires a major effort to cull out our “wish” recycling and composting efforts.
Each of us has responsibility where our household trash is concerned. A little tape here and there on the cardboard in the yard waste bin may be no big deal in your mind, but when it negatively impacts the composter’s equipment and processing, you have done the system no favors.
Too many people believe the solid waste fairy is going to deal with all of their mistakes with no repercussions. The driver of one vehicle saw an opportunity to provide some one-on-one education and got verbally disrespected for his knowledge and willingness to educate. If the homeowner had not been there, the driver would not have collected the load, tagged the bin, left a note explaining the problem, noted it in the computer system, and checked the load again during the next collection cycle to be sure the problem had been resolved.
I realize that as residents we often forget the value that is being provided directly and indirectly by our team of local governmental service providers and their contractors. They may not be perfect, but they do more to enhance the well-being of our lives than most of us realize. Yes, we pay for the services either directly, through our taxes, or a combination of the two.
Many of us need to check our personal attitudes at the door. Work-a-day people — just trying to do a decent job, providing a service that makes our lives easier, and correcting problems as they see them occur — need our respect. Kindness generally works better, and customers are not always right.
Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.