Chris Knehr 

Chris Knehr is a trash man. Not a "sanitation engineer," a "waste management professional," nor any other flowery title concocted to camouflage what he does for a living. At 29, he's been slinging garbage with Allied Waste for four years and is darn proud of what he does. Formerly a firefighter in John Day, Ore., Knehr turned to trash so he could spend time at home with his wife and kids instead of weeks on a fire line.

Chris and his co-workers collect garbage from 800 to 1,000 homes every day. It's a dirty, nasty job, filled with moments that would make most of us gag. Not everyone is willing to do it, so BW wanted to know just what it takes to toss trash in the City of Trees.

What's your job title?

I've heard a lot of different names, but we're just trash men. That's what we do. We pick up the trash and make it go away.

How much does a truck carry?

Twenty-five compacted yards, which is about 34,000 pounds per load. During the summer, we do about 75 yards per truck a day, or 100,000 pounds.

What's in trash that can hurt you?

A big one is glass in plastic bags. We've had a few people who've been sliced open because of glass in plastic bags. Because when you're throwing trash, everything hits your legs. People should label the bag "glass" so we know.

A lot of people who use syringes don't dispose of them in sharps containers. We've had guys get stuck, and they have to go get tested at Occupational Medicine and file a claim. People can put needles in a plastic mayonnaise jar or a coffee can and cap it off and label it "sharps."

Rosebushes are another thing. If people can take a plastic bag or a piece of string and tie it to the bundle of bushes, that would give us something to grab on to.

What about chemicals?

People put Clorox in with Pine Sol, and there have been times when we've had fires started in the backs of trucks because of things being mixed. Plus it burns your eyes. A lot of people throw away lye, and if we get that on our skin, that just burns and burns. You get rashes. It's bad.

What does trash reveal about us?

We see a lot of wasteful people. There are so many things that people could have donated. All you have to do is call the ARC, Goodwill or [Idaho] Youth Ranch, and somebody will come get it. People throw away jackets, pants, clothing, toys for kids, canned food—tons of stuff every day that's still in perfect shape. Always think before you just toss out something you don't need.

Do you take items to charities?

I know of four or five guys who grab clothes, put them in a bag and bring them home and wash them and drop them off at donation sites.

Does garbage speak to lifestyle?

Close to the campus next to BSU, people throw away a lot of beer bottles and liquor bottles. Some of the nicer areas of town, you see expensive bottles of chardonnay or Scotch. Then you go other places, and you'll see Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. You can go so in-depth into someone's life by going through their trash. Especially people who are careless and throw away their W-2s and checkbook registers.

What's the gross-out quotient?

There's people who just throw trash directly into the can, and before we even get to that stop, we get the smell—the maggots. They're just unbelievable. We get cans that are a quarter full of them: 32-gallon cans, a quarter-filled with maggots. You can smell those stops. The juices that are sitting in there, too, with them, fermenting. When you grab the can, you have to make sure it doesn't splash out because if it does, you're stuck with the smell all day. There's also someone who traps skunks and throws them away, and when the blades on the truck pop those trash bags, the smell is just so potent. It spreads through the truck, the cab—your eyes just water.

Has anything spilled on you that you wish hadn't?

I've had maggots crushed on me. Spoiled milk is bad. People need to dispose of milk instead of just putting full jugs into the trash, because the pressure from our blades will pop those open, and if you're back there dumping a can and it pops open, you get sprayed with chunky, sour, rotten milk.

What other items do people leave?

A lot of people just toss diapers into the can, and it gets stuck down there, and you have to reach in and grab it. Then you have all that stuff on your gloves. Same thing with feminine hygiene products and used condoms. Bagging it would help. Sometimes it sort of pisses me off, like, "C'mon, can't you just wrap this stuff?"

How do you manage your gag reflex?

I don't have a weak stomach. You need to just deal with it. There are a lot of people that want to vomit because the smell is so potent. When they throw up, it's like, "You better get used to it now, because you're going to be dealing with it almost every single day."

What do your wife and kids think?

My wife won't touch me until I'm showered. My kids don't care. They just run right up to me. And I've got two dogs that want to jump on me, too.

Do you think you stink?

Oh, yeah, oh man, you'd think that you wouldn't notice after awhile, but after a long, hot day, you can smell it. It's just stink from dirt and trash and things that get on you.

Suggestions for people to help you do your job easier?

Lighten up the loads, put your trash cans next to each other and don't block your mailbox. Use sharps containers for needles, and try to get trash out by 7 a.m. Get rid of the old aluminum trash cans and use the Rubbermaid type, or call us to get one of the Toter containers. Watch your kids and animals.

What should people know about trash men?

We'd just like people to respect what we do. This job is unlike any other job. Just take the time and realize what we're doing is not something everybody can or will do. We're out there busting our asses every single day in the heat, the cold, the rain, snow. If we don't do it, people would be sitting in their own filth.

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