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In general, refuse collection teams of two or three workers drive along established routes and empty household trash containers into garbage trucks. The refuse, which is often mechanically compacted in the truck, is taken to a landfill or other appropriate disposal facility.
Refuse workers may collect all kinds of solid wastes, including food scraps, paper products, and plastics. Depending on local requirements, the refuse may be loose in containers, in packaging such as plastic bags, in preapproved containers that indicate recyclable materials, or, for newspapers and magazines, tied in bundles. When the truck is full, the workers drive with the load to the disposal site and empty the truck. Workers may also pick up cast-off furniture, old appliances, or other large, bulky items, although usually such items are collected only on certain days.
An average day for refuse collectors often begins before dawn with an inspection of the truck that includes checking lights, tires, testing air and oil pressure gauges, and making sure a spill kit is on board. Refuse collectors who work on commercial routes or pickup dumpsters stay in contact with dispatchers via radio or cellular phone to learn where they are needed to pick up. Refuse collectors gas up their trucks as needed and recheck the truck's vital equipment at the end of the day.
As they move along their routes, refuse collectors are constantly getting on and off the truck to lift trash containers onto the truck. The containers are often heavy. Sometimes the different work duties are divided among the workers, with the driver doing only the driving all day long. In other cases, the workers alternate between driving and loading and unloading throughout the day.
Some employers send refuse collectors on routes alone, and they are responsible for driving the truck and loading the refuse. Usually, however, refuse collectors working alone have special routes, such as driving a truck that can lift and empty dumpsters. The refuse collector operates the levers and buttons that lift and dump the dumpster's contents into the truck. This kind of system is particularly useful for apartment buildings, construction sites, and other locations that need containers so large they are too heavy to empty by hand. The use of mechanical hoists on trucks makes refuse pickup much faster and more efficient.
Some trucks are built with multiple bins, so that recyclable items that customers have set out separately, such as aluminum or newspaper, can be kept separate in the truck and later taken to buyers. In some communities, the pickup days and the company responsible for disposal are different for recyclable materials than for other mixed general refuse.
Garbage-collection supervisors direct and coordinate the tasks of the various workers involved in the collecting and transporting of refuse. They make work assignments and monitor and evaluate job performance.