A white garbage truck with pink flowers

15 Nov 2019 Coyoacán, Mexico city

Today was the day. I left my place without my backpack. I left my sunglasses behind too, not to look like a tourist too much. Not knowing how long my adventure will be, I started by stuffing myself in my local vegetarian restaurant. Then I headed towards the central part of Coyoacan. I looked up “waste management system” in Spanish in my dictionary, just in case. There were a lot of street cleaners on my way, but no visible garbage trucks. At every crossing I evaluated my options and chose a direction that seemed to be most likely to lead to an encounter. It was my first time walking aimlessly around the city, I was hoping to feel relaxed, but I was scared of doing what I was planning to do. Then, out of nowhere, I saw a white garbage truck with pink flowers drawn on its sides. I stared at the truck and at the people working on it. They noticed me staring, but didn’t say anything. Eventually the truck drove off.

Hesitantly, I followed. It stopped after a couple of blocks, the crew were ringing a bell loudly, waiting for local residents to bring their trash. There were four members of the crew - the main guy who was also the driver, an old guy and two young guys. Fighting my fear, I approached them smiling and asked whether they could explain to me how it all works. I was hoping the younger guys might see me as an opportunity to practice English, since my Spanish was obviously bad. Instead, the head of the crew, his name was Mario, replied with a decisive yes. He jumped to the side of the truck where all the buttons were. He spoke clear Spanish, easy for me to understand. He pressed each of the buttons in turn while explaining - this one puts the “grabber” into the open position, this one makes it compress the trash, etc. I asked about the trash sorting they do. Mario gestured to the truck - bio trash goes here and the rest goes here. I insisted that I’m interested in the sorting work that they do, not the compartments of the truck. To make it more obvious, I asked whether they are paid extra for sorted trash. Mario said that yes they are paid extra for the recyclables they find.

“But it’s very dangerous,” said the young member of the crew, picking up a piece of a broken plate from the belly of the truck to show me. Mario pointed out an empty tuna can that he already separated into a bag of metals - “these things cut our hands”. They all worked without gloves. I asked more about plastics. He picked up a detergent bottle from one of his bags of recyclables - “this is number 2, this bottle is HD-PE, but not all number 2 are, they are different”. Then he showed me a coca-cola bottle from another bag - “this is number 1”. He picked out an empty yoghurt container from the belly of the truck - “this is number 5, we don’t collect them, but when all this goes to the depo, there they separate much more than we do”. I gestured to a glass bottle deep in the belly of the truck, they happily fished it out with a metal rod and put it into their bag of glass. Mario waved me goodbye as he walked around the truck and jumped into the driver’s seat. He was about to drive off, but had to wait in traffic at the junction. I looked at him through the open window of the truck and asked if I could go with him, he explained to me why not, I didn’t really understand what he said. As the traffic prevented him from moving, I jumped onto the side of the truck holding onto the open window with both hands. I think I looked like a vampire in a cheap horror movie, ready to bite off the head of the driver. Mario gave in and said I could get in. I opened the door, jumped in, and we drove off. My first time driving in a garbage truck!

Mario said that every single day he is doing exactly the same work, and it’s really boring. He was happy that at least for me it’s interesting. We drove for a couple more blocks and then we stopped. “Here we get off,” said Mario. As I got off, behind the truck I saw a pile of trash almost bigger than the truck itself. The crew got to work. There were four jobs - loading the bio trash, loading the non-bio trash, picking out recyclables and assisting others. The bio trash mainly consisted of light bags of dry leaves and heavy bags of moved grass. That’s how you know you are in a rich neighbourhood and it’s autumn. The little bags of bio-trash from households were the worst, as each plastic bag had to be ripped open and placed into the non-bio trash compartment. Once most bags were loaded in, the crew started working on the carts that were left here by the street cleaners. Each cart contained 3 barrels, each more than a meter high. The street cleaners used broom sticks stuck into the barrels to attach large trash bags to the outside of the cart. Some barrels were secured to the carts with pieces of rope, others with headphone wires that have been found in the trash. The older barrels were metal, new ones were made from plastic. The two young guys were saying “uno y dos” as they lifted the heavy barrels together and tipped them over into the truck. One of them would prop the barrel in the upside down position with his head, while quickly ripping apart each of the tiny plastic bags full of bio-trash with both hands. Another guy would grab handfuls of long tube lights, throw them into the truck and swiftly cover his face as shards of glass were flying out of the truck. Everybody was coughing from the dust they were generating while working very fast. All members of the crew worked with meticulous attention to details. One guy spotted a watch battery on the street and put it into the 2 liter metal can attached to the side of the truck, it was decorated with an Apple brand sticker. They used a licence plate they found in the trash as a scoop. My heart would stop for a moment every time somebody reached into the belly of the truck to retrieve a recyclable item while the grabber was already in its garbage compressing motion.

Once all the trash was in the truck, they swept the street clean, and cleaned the stairs of the truck, ensuring that they don’t litter the streets as they drive to their final destination. They loaded the bags of recyclables onto the truck. The plastics number 1 was by far the most voluminous, they used a 1500kg granulated sugar bag to collect it, and it was full. As they managed to put it onto the truck with a collective effort, it started to tip over. The two young guys jumped on the back stairs of the truck and held the massive bag higher than them with one hand while attaching themselves to the truck with another. The truck moved. I said “take me with you” and the guys screamed back “it’s very dangerous where we are going” as they were driving off into the distance. I started running behind the truck. As they turned at the junction, both guys smiled at me, they had kind eyes. I signaled “don’t leave me behind” with my body language, they smiled more and disappeared from sight. Mario knew he’ll not get rid of me otherwise, driving off without saying goodbye was the only way. I slowly walked in the direction in which the truck went, but I never saw it again. I wanted to give Mario money to buy good gloves for him and his crew, but I lost my chance. Perhaps I’ll meet these guys some other day.