Refuse Collector Career

Refuse collectors gather garbage and other discarded materials set out by customers along designated routes in urban and rural communities and transport the materials to sanitary landfills or incinerator plants for disposal. Refuse collectors may specialize in collecting certain types of material, such as recyclable glass, newsprint, or aluminum. There are approximately 149,000 refuse and recyclable materials collectors working in the United States.

History of Refuse Collector Career

Refuse Collector CareerRefuse, or the solid waste generated by a community, has presented problems for just about every society throughout history; previously, the accepted method for disposal of refuse was burning at home or haphazard dumping into open pits or waterways. In the past couple of centuries, heavier population concentrations and industrial growth have vastly increased the quantity of refuse produced, making unregulated dumping impractical as well as unhealthy. As waste disposal has become more regulated, the job of the waste hauler has changed as well.

The first sanitary landfill was opened in 1912. In a sanitary landfill, refuse gathered from a community is deposited in a large pit in shallow layers, compacted, and covered daily with earth. Sealed in, the refuse undergoes slow, natural decomposition. When the pit is full, the top is sealed over and the land is available for reuse, often as a public park or other recreational area. Landfills are increasingly regulated in regards to their location, operation, and closure. The number of landfills, which peaked nationwide in the mid-1980s, is now dropping as communities fight against having landfills in their midst. The result is fewer, larger landfills that are located in communities that favor the jobs that the landfill offers. As a result, refuse collectors who transport waste to landfills may spend greater parts of their workday driving longer distances to the landfill.

Increases in recycling have also changed the job of the refuse collector. In more and more communities around the United States, people separate out materials such as glass bottles, metal cans, newspapers, certain plastics, and other designated refuse for recycling, thus limiting the flow of refuse into landfills and incinerators. The sale of recyclable materials can help to reduce the cost of the refuse disposal operation. Refuse collectors are the ones who pick up recyclables in most communities, sometimes on the same day, and even in the same truck, as the garbage is collected. Some trucks are equipped with separate bins for refuse and recyclables. Other refuse collectors may pick up only recyclables, usually in larger communities. The trend toward recycling requires refuse collectors who deal with these items to be familiar with how they are to be properly separated.

Another form of reclaiming materials is the composting of plant wastes, such as grass clippings, brush, and leaves, in community compost heaps. Composting is a way to decompose this material into mulch, which is rich in minerals and can be reclaimed for fertilizer. This mulch, or compost, may be used by the municipality or made available to its citizens. Refuse collectors sometimes pick up yard wastes and are therefore required to know when the resident has used the proper container for grass clippings.

The Job of Refuse Collectors

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 also may 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.

Refuse Collector Career Requirements

High School

Employers prefer applicants who are high school graduates. Workers who hope to advance to a supervisory position ought to have at least a high school diploma. High school classes that may be helpful include any shop classes that provide hands-on learning opportunities and physical education classes that teach you how to develop strength and endurance. A good understanding of basic math and English is also necessary to read instructions and operate equipment for the job.

Postsecondary Training

Generally, employers will hire people without work experience or specific training. Most employers, however, do require workers to be at least 18 years old and physically able to perform the work.

Refuse workers need to be physically fit and able to lift heavy objects. Sometimes a health examination is required for employment. Employers look for workers who are reliable and hardworking.

Experience in driving a truck and in loading and unloading heavy material is helpful. Many refuse workers, especially those in metropolitan areas, are members of a union such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America. Those who work for private firms might not be unionized.

Certification or Licensing

Workers who drive collection trucks need a commercial driver’s license (CDL). In some areas, where the workers alternate jobs, a CDL is required even of those who are generally loaders. A clean driving record is often a necessity. Refuse collectors may have to pass a civil service test in order to work for a city or town.

Exploring Refuse Collector Career

If you are thinking about getting into this kind of work, you may find it helpful to talk with experienced workers in similar jobs. In some areas, there may be opportunities for summer or part-time work, although workers in these positions generally have to meet the same requirements as full-time employees. Contact local recycling centers to check on availability of volunteer or part-time work. A job as a furniture mover or truck driver is another way to learn about some of the responsibilities of refuse collectors. Any experience you can gain in a related job that requires physical strength and reliability is useful to test your work endurance. Experience as a material handler, equipment cleaner, helper, or laborer would be useful.


In the past, refuse collectors were employed almost exclusively by municipalities. Today, refuse collectors may work for private waste haulers that contract with local governments or even specialized firms, such as recycling haulers. Some local governments still operate their own waste-hauling programs, and in these communities, refuse collectors are city employees. But many have found it more cost-effective to contract with private waste haulers who employ their own refuse collectors. Similar jobs may be found at landfills, where workers are needed to assist drivers in dumping collected refuse, or at material recovery facilities (MRFs), where recyclables are taken. MRFs need workers to separate materials, load and unload trucks, and operate equipment such as balers that condense the recyclables into large, dense bales.

Starting Out

To apply for refuse collector jobs, contact your local city government’s personnel department or department of sanitation. Employees in these offices may be able to supply information on job openings and local requirements. If you are interested in working for a private disposal firm, contact the firm directly. You can find listings for specific job opportunities through the state employment service or newspaper classified ads. Contacting a waste disposal union’s local branch and becoming a member may help you land a job when one becomes available in your area.


Opportunities for advancement are usually limited for refuse collectors. Those who work for municipal governments may be able to transfer to better-paying jobs in another department of city government, such as public works. Sometimes advancement means becoming the driver of a refuse truck, rather than a worker who loads and unloads the truck. In larger organizations, refuse collectors who prove to be reliable employees may be promoted to supervisory positions, where they coordinate and direct the activities of other workers. Others may develop a knowledge of recyclables, for example, and help coordinate a waste hauler’s recycling business.


Earnings of refuse collectors vary widely depending on their employer, union status, and other factors. Beginning refuse collectors who work for small, private firms and are not union members are sometimes paid at hourly wages not far above the federal minimum wage. Median annual earnings of refuse and recyclable materials collectors in 2004 were $25,750 a year for full-time work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries range from less than $14,000 to more than $42,000. In general, workers employed by large cities under union contracts make more money, and those working for small companies without union contracts make less.

Refuse collectors get overtime pay for working extra hours, during the evenings, or on weekends. They may receive paid time during each shift to shower and change clothes. Union workers receive benefits such as health insurance and paid sick leave and vacation days. Most full-time workers with private companies also receive benefits, although they may not receive as desirable a benefits package.

Work Environment

Refuse workers must work outdoors in all kinds of weather, including cold, snow, rain, and heat, and they must handle dirty, smelly objects. The work is active and often strenuous, requiring the lifting of heavy refuse containers, hopping on and off the truck constantly, and operating hoists and other equipment. Workers often encounter garbage that is not packed correctly. Because there is a danger of infection from raw garbage, they must wear protective gloves and are sometimes provided with uniforms. Workers must always be aware of the dangers of working around traffic and mechanical compactors. Most workers wear heavy steel-toe boots to help avoid foot injuries from accidentally dropping containers or large objects. New employees receive instruction on safety precautions they will need to take as well as instructions about their responsibilities.

Most refuse collectors work during weekday daylight hours, with regular shifts totaling 35 to 40 hours per week. Many workers put in slightly longer hours. Many workers begin their shifts in the predawn hours, while other workers routinely work in the evenings. In emergencies (for removal of storm-downed tree branches, for instance), weekend hours may be necessary. Workers who drive the trucks must have a CDL, and federal law prohibits CDL drivers from working more than 60 hours per week.

Refuse Collector Career Outlook

There are about 149,000 refuse and recyclable materials collectors employed in the United States. The government predicts employment for material movers of all sorts, including refuse collectors, will grow more slowly than the average through 2014. However, job turnover is high in this field. Every year, many positions will become available as workers transfer to other jobs or leave the workforce.

Opportunities will be best in heavily populated regions in and near big cities, where the most waste is generated. In cities, increasing use of mechanized equipment for lifting and emptying large refuse containers may decrease the need for these workers. However, as communities encourage more recycling and more resource recovery technologies, job availability may change somewhat for refuse collectors. More varied pickup services may tend to require more workers, expanding the employment opportunities in both the public and private sector.

A trend that favors use of large, nationally based waste management corporations is eliminating smaller competitors in some areas. This suggests that job security may depend on the size of the employer. As recycling becomes more lucrative, large companies may concentrate on this aspect of waste disposal.

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