December 31, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


In the Dumps 

After one of the worst retail holidays in memory, the search for economic clues starts — and ends — in the garbage truck.

click to enlarge cover53_trash.jpg

After 21 years of picking up after jolly old St. Nicholas, James A. Lambert Sr. knows the drill.

Lambert's thick frame, curly Santa-style beard and impish smile make him the perfect post-holiday elf. And for two decades he's dutifully been there to catch the mountain of discarded packing boxes, reams of multicolored ribbon and billowing clouds of tattered wrapping paper trailing behind Santa's less-than-environmentally-friendly sleigh.

Each year on the morning after Christmas, Lambert rises before dawn and makes his way to the Henrico County Department of Public Utilities depot off Woodman Road. Suiting up in blue overalls and a rugged, dark-blue canvas coat, he boards his sleigh: a Henrico County garbage truck.

You might expect a day spent picking up the tattered remains of an entire county's Yuletide cheer to be a bit of a downer. Not for Lambert.

“Christmases are getting better and better,” he says, a wide smile tugging the ends of his beard. It used to be the county ran its trash men on Christmas Day, but the benevolent hand of the county's public utilities department ended that a few years back.

This year, the county's garbage crews — all 22 trucks that run on this unseasonably pleasant Friday — are in for an unwelcome treat: a decidedly slow trash day. While local television news crews head to the mall to interview post-Christmas shoppers in search of clues about the state of the economy, Lambert surveys perhaps the most telling economic indicator: trash.

This year, Lambert speculates, his smile fading to a slight frown, is the year when Christmas never quite came.

“Last year, Christmas seemed like Christmas,” he says. “This year, it's just another day.”

Any garbage collector will tell the same story. While professional economists spend their time crunching numbers and reading the markets, garbage collectors see firsthand the effects of consumer slowdowns and shifts in buying patterns. Fewer half-eaten turkeys at Thanksgiving, more empty food cans, a precipitous dip in discarded TV sets.

There are experts who recognize that Lambert's bona fides make him a different kind of authority on economics, among them The Economist magazine, no less. In 1995, the publication published an experiment that found over a 10-year period British garbage men consistently outperformed former finance ministers and Oxford University students and were on par with chairmen of multinational corporations in providing economic predictions.

And there's Christine O'Connell, a researcher at Stony Brook University in New York, who also sees a direct link between residential waste and consumer spending as a way to examine broader economic health.

She cites the Long Island Index, a study funded by the Rauch Foundation to study the economic health of Long Island, N.Y, which uses recycling and municipal waste trends as tools to gauge the economic health of the area.

Just last month the Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the U.S. economy had been in recession since December 2007.

While household trash generation has experienced noticeable changes this year, in line with worsening economic conditions since summer, Lambert says his trash barometer reveals the recession actually started a few years earlier than the experts now say.

“I'd put it at least four or five years back,” Lambert says while his truck rumbles down a tree-lined residential road in Henrico's upscale Chickahominy Bluffs subdivision. Lambert looks not to Christmas of last year, but to the spirit of Christmas circa 2004: “It creeped on in — won't nobody paying attention to it.”

Lambert says the guys in suits with the fancy academic titles couldn't spot a recession if it hit them like a garbage truck. Maybe — just maybe — he suggests, those guys would have a better chance of offering insight before it's too late to help if they were riding his truck.

“I just smile because I knew they were playing a game and the public was still going for it,” Lambert says. Meanwhile, looking curbside every week gave Lambert all the evidence he needed to see that bad times settled in long ago.

Lambert is not the only one in the Henrico County Department of Public Utilities whose experience behind the wheel of a garbage truck might provide Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke some helpful guidance in steering U.S. economic policy.

Bobby Ragsdale is the county's labor foreman for trash collection, on the job for 19 years. Though he doesn't go back quite as far as Lambert in calling the beginning of the economic downturn, Ragsdale goes back a year before the experts' official December 2007 declaration.

The changes came not long after gas prices spiked to more than $3.50 a gallon and $4 diesel prices began to affect food prices.

“You could see things declining — it was hard for people to get jobs and you could see it,” he says. What Ragsdale could see on the curb and smell in the wind just never registered in the high halls of academia — and it's too bad, Ragsdale says: “I'd say they missed.”

When stuck in traffic behind a billowing cloud of exhaust smoke and rancid discarded household waste that tends to follow garbage trucks, it's all too easy to dismiss the men that ride those routes.

But the signs have been all over the county for years, says Reggie Mason, another county garbage truck driver.

“About two or two and a half years ago … I started noticing things weren't right. I was seeing more cardboard — more noodle boxes,” Mason says. “Now I'm seeing a whole lot of canned goods.” The rise of noodle dinners and canned goods indicates that people are eating out less, eating cheaper and staying home; cutting cost corners as the downturn bears down.

In the trash business, the more it smells, the healthier things are for the broader economy. For the crews handling the discarded remains of last week's meals, it's been disturbingly clean going. Still plenty stinky if things have had the right time to ripen, but not quite as ripe because there's not as much left out to rot.

“There aren't any scraps left,” Mason says, grading the trash he's been picking up for well over a year now. “Everyone is making do.”

In some sense the economists are right declaring the recession now, he says, because things have definitely gone from bad to worse with the stock market tanking, banks folding and the government beginning its so-far futile attempt to deploy the parachute.

Even last year, it was common to see half a turkey discarded the day after Christmas or Thanksgiving. “I'm not seeing none of that now,” he says.

Mason offers another reason why riding a garbage truck could give the guys with the calculators in the Treasury Department more data to crunch. He's had a bird's-eye view as the real estate bubble burst.

It's hardly uncommon on some routes through newer subdivisions that there's no trash to pick up, Mason says. “They built all these beautiful homes, but you can't afford to live in it” and with no one living there, the garbage truck just rumbles on by.

And then there are the roadside motels, where Mason observes less-than-subtle changes.

“Before you might see a few people [living there],” he says, of the once-light trash pickup that has increased substantially. “You've got whole families living in motels now.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics pegs metro Richmond's unemployment around 4.8. percent in November against a national average currently cresting just above 6 percent. But overall, Virginia's rate is up 0.8 percent in less than five months, which bodes ill for the future as more manufacturing plants shutter, retail stores close, restaurants fold and even government jobs begin contracting, as is now forecast by most economists.

While they forecast for tomorrow, Henrico's garbagemen are seeing today.

The cans in front of a typical house go from two to three on the day after Christmas.

Though the early retail sales estimates gave ample warning that this would be a blue Christmas, the county has sent out additional trucks today, increasing its coverage from 16 to 22 trucks to account for the anticipated increase in business. It'll help offset the modest bump in trash volume they see, labor foreman Ragsdale says.

Not this year. The trucks finish earlier than usual.

Catherine Hougham's house on Gillespie Avenue is an exception to the rule in Lakeside. Dragging a load to the curb already piled high with pink boxes indicative of a Barbie fan, there was no shortage of Christmas here, Hougham says.

“It was wonderful,” she says.

Santa stuck to a strict budget, though. In a normal year, Hougham says it would have been a Nintendo-themed Christmas for her son. And her daughter probably would have been allowed to ask Santa to pile on even more pink.

We got them more crafty stuff,” she says. “Arts and crafts stuff — things to keep them busy.”

Belt tightening for Hougham so far has been anticipatory, necessitated in part by her husband's profession as an electrician. His work has been steady, she says, but the union leaders haven't been singing “Deck the Halls” down at the local: “They just got told there might be some layoffs in a month,” she says.

She recently gave up her job as a bartender to stay home with the children. Part of that decision was maternal, she says, but the other was practical: “Business wasn't worth it.”

On a dead-end road down the block from the Houghams, the truck pulls up in front of another house where Santa had more to spend. Boxes once containing a Mr. Coffee and a Playskool doll house sit next to trash cans with a bit of bright-colored wrapping paper peeking out.

But next door, an old green can is full of regular old weekly trash.

“A whole lot of jobs are folding up,” Mason says. “A lot of jobs [are] gone. At Philip Morris, people are getting fired every day. I had a buddy had a job there more than five years. They laid him off.”

Old television sets and other discarded appliances used to provide the occasional workout for otherwise unused muscle groups, but during the past two years, he says, these workouts have become less frequent.

“We used to get TV sets every day,” Mason says. “Now people … if they can make it work, they're going to make it work. You don't buy the new TV set if you might not have a job tomorrow.”

Mason's crew tries to maintain a rosier outlook on this year's post-Christmas trash haul.

“A lot of people, maybe they're still out of town,” Alfred Jiggetts says, hopefully offering that “it's usually the following week after Christmas that you see most of the trash.”

Alphonze Blunt has his own theory: “A whole lot of customers are forgetting we work today. All next week it's going to be boxes.”

But both acknowledge that one of the trash man's key economic indicators leading into the holiday season also was way off this year. Normally, the week before Christmas offers its own rush. That's when the old dolls and radio-controlled trucks are tossed to make way for the new.

“It was less this year than last year,” Blunt says. He also notes that overall there's simply been less trash on this day than accounts for customers' simply forgetting to haul things curbside.

Back on the road, Mason pauses to let the truck's hydraulic compactor do its work.

“I have people laugh at me and say, ‘You’re a trash man? That's nasty!'” he says. “And I used to laugh and say ‘Job security.’” Fewer people laugh now, and when Mason thinks about job security he knows he's more fortunate than many.

Just down the street, a house with plenty of trash out front, but evidently very little in the way of personal pride, has placed nearly a dozen overflowing black trash bags out to the curb.

“That's ridiculous right there,” Mason says with an exasperated huff. 

There are more bags two blocks over, at a pretty little yellow house restored meticulously by someone. Some neighborhood dogs have torn into the garbage, scattering paper plates smeared with what appears to be pork and beans across the lawn. Again, there's no sign of holiday wrapping paper or boxes once full of new electronics.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Mason says of the lack of shiny wrapping paper or other clues that might indicate Christmas happened yesterday.

The story is much the same at the county landfill off Springfield Road.

It's 11:56 a.m. — still technically morning — when James Lambert pulls his truck onto the scales to be weighed: Just shy of 8 tons.

“That's about average,” Lambert says, shrugging. His truck can hold twice that. Baroque classical music plays softly on the truck's radio.

On the muddy slope of a nearby trash mountain covered by a swarming cloud of seagulls, Santa's mop-up man dumps his day's haul, giving a final tally of the Christmas that never was. A Macy's bag, two red Target bags, a box that once held a child-size drum set and a huge can of candied yams are about all the evidence there is on this mountain of trash that Christmas 2008 has come and gone.

“Christmas really didn't come through this year,” Lambert says. “Santa, he came, but he just wasn't with it when he got here.” S



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