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Garbage collectors are among those on the front lines

Mark Barbato, co-owner of Hillsdale, New York-based Carmen Barbato Inc. (Emily Thurlow)

Healthcare workers. Restaurateurs and grocers. Police officers and firefighters.
These occupations have been widely publicized as being on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19 outbreak.
One essential industry, however, continuing to do its part in the viral battle is considered quite literally at the bottom of the barrel: the garbage collector.
The waste collection and disposal industry in the U.S. comprises more than 467,000 employees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Workers in the industry are facing unique challenges as the coronavirus disease progresses.
And in the Berkshires, those challenges are no different.
Roger Trucking Waste Removal & Recycling Services has already had to lay off a few of its employees, according to Robert W. Brownson, owner of the Great Barrington-based business. With the closure of several non-essential businesses, the need for daily trash removal has been reduced to a lesser frequency, he said.
“It’s a huge financial hit to the garbage man,” said Brownson. “I have accounts with motels, restaurants and big complexes that are closed or have skeleton crews. And even though they can cut back, my truck payment doesn’t change. My fuel bill doesn’t change. My insurance company bill doesn’t change. … all of my expenses still occur. It’s a massive hit.”
Initially, Carmen Barbato Inc. saw a slowdown in its traffic at the transfer station, but this past week, it ramped back up, according to Mary Barbato, vice president of marketing and communications for the Hillsdale, New York-based business that provides services to Columbia County, New York as well as south county towns.
Currently, Barbato says the company has not had to lay off any of its staff, although some office staff are working from home.
She did note that the business has seen an increase in new customers for residential pick-up services since the virus was first announced.
One issue that arose long before the global pandemic struck is people tossing trash in bins that aren’t bagged. While a garbage collector might have picked up a paper towel or tissue here or there that falls out of a bin in the past, now, those same scraps will remain where they fall, said Brownson.
This past week, Brownson also noted that customers had reported another annual issue: bears.
“We’ve had a bear problem for years, but now they’re going to be a huge problem if they get into trash as they have in the past,” he said. “And people are creatures of habit. If they see a piece of trash on the trail, they might want to pick it up … and that’s how it’ll spread. Bear season brings a new concern.”
And even though trash itself is a concern, environmental experts have noted that single-use plastic should also be an area of concern. A recent report from the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that the novel coronavirus can remain on plastics and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days, and on cardboard for up to one day.
At Carmen Barbato, staff is taking precautions for both staff and the community by issuing a letter of guidelines for household waste removal. In the letter, the company asked that if its customers have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, they double-bag the garbage and refrain from putting it out for pickup until doctors have cleared the customer from having the virus.
“Recently, the U.S. National Institutes of Health published a study on the time that COVID-19 lives on certain materials – materials that are in everyone’s garbage. So as many of us stay at home, our garbage travels. It was at this point we realized we needed to educate the public on how to properly handle their garbage to minimize the spread of the virus” said Barbato. “We worked with industry experts and organizations around the country, studied what China put out as guidelines, and surveyed our drivers, to come up with the safest guidelines to keep both the community and our drivers safe and minimize the spread of COVID-19.”
Tissues, paper towels, napkins, masks, rubber gloves or any other similar items found in a recycling bin are also not allowed at any point, but if found now, recycling will not be picked up, according to their guidelines.
“I want to keep my employees healthy,” said Mark Barbato, brother to Barbato and co-owner of the business. “And it’s a challenge. Everything we do, we have to touch. We don’t have an automated truck, so that means our guys have to get out of the truck, grab the tote, roll it out and dump it in. The last thing we want is one of our guys getting sick and bringing it home to their family … and that’s the biggest concern they have: picking up someone’s garbage and not knowing if someone there has the virus.”
The company also asks its customers to empty all containers of liquids as they can carry viruses and bacteria, and can splash when trash and recyclables are emptied, said Barbato. She also advocated for customers to use gloves when moving totes out for pickup and encouraged to sanitize and wipe the totes.
Both employers spoke of how their industry is often the last to be considered.
“We’ve always been the bottom of the barrel on getting paid, now it’s three time worse,” said Brownson. “Garbage doesn’t have the same value as other things. It smells and it’s a hassle. But when people aren’t working and have bills to keep the lights on or buy food for the kids. Who are you going to pay? It’s not the garbage man.”
Brownson also said he’s particularly upset with his financial institution, noting that he went seeking help and was instead directed to deal with the Small Business Administration.
“I called my bank to increase my line of credit and was turned down. No one has called and asked if I needed help. It’s easier to push me off to the SBA, even if we are dealing with dangerous stuff every single day,” he said, advocating for more people to support local businesses. “We’re just barely holding on. A couple more months [like this] and I don’t think we’re going to make it.”


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