GFL in the driver's seat: same Squamish folks, new name

Behind-the-scenes of local waste collection

An incessant beeping cuts through the air as the driver of the large recycling truck throws it into reverse. The back of the truck, or hopper, lifts and unloads its cargo onto the cement floor.

The full truck carries about half a day's worth of recycling picked up from one neighbourhood out of the five routes in Squamish.

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After a few minutes, driver Aaron Gruber is ready to head back to work. Today it's the Highlands, a route he's driven for so long, it's almost automatic to him.

Gruber has worked for Carney's, which then became GFL, for a total of 25 years — making him the most senior driver of the fleet. Some of his coworkers have been on the job for 20 years or more, though in other departments.

"One of the guys in the shop, I used to pick up his garbage when he was a kid," Gruber said. "One of the head mechanics in there, I remember him coming around my place."

In his years behind the wheel, Gruber has seen a lot of change, not only in his industry, but in Squamish as well. He started in the 1990s, several years after Squamish began recycling. In 2018, locally-owned Carney's Waste Systems became part of Green for Life. That same year, Squamish joined Recycle BC. And the routes are continuing to expand as new houses are built. Last month, GFL stopped accepting Styrofoam, only to begin picking it up again two weeks later.

The biggest change perhaps came around 2006, when the company bought trucks with an extension similar to a claw in an arcade game. Operated by the driver in the cab of the truck, collection workers don't manually empty bins anymore. Gruber can now do his routes solo and doesn't need to get out of the truck nearly as often, unless he knocks over a can or its contents fall out. While Gruber picks up the curbside recycling, another truck collects organics.

"It made it easier on my body because throwing cans up over your head and into the truck takes a toll on you after a while," he said. "It just made the job actually easier. A little safer, fewer injuries. No battling the snow and the rain."

GFL in the driver's seat: same Squamish folks, new name_10
Video monitor in the truck. - Keili Bartlett

A video monitor in the cab shows the driver what is being dumped in the truck's receptacle, in case something non-recyclable is included. 

"It's a different job than a lot of people think," he says.

Since the company changeover in 2018, there are a few new faces at the Squamish location, but for the most part, it's the same local workers.

There "wasn't much change. It was basically business as usual," Gruber said, although he added there have been minor growing pains. The paperwork has changed and the phone and computer systems upgraded. The union negotiated a raise.

"What I've noticed most about my fellow Squamish people, we don't like change," Gruber said. When GFL began, some residents started commenting, asking where their old driver was — even though, often, it was the same driver just in a different coloured truck.

Wherever they go, the truck drivers have eyes on them. Gruber said if he ever makes a left turn where he normally takes a right, someone will almost certainly call the company to ask where he went.

"It's the funniest thing," he said.

And it's not just humans keeping an eye on what the drivers do — the bears do too.

"They're smart," Gruber said. "When you're in an area late, they know."

Gruber said he hasn't seen as much bear activity as he used to. In one area, GFL changed route times when they heard a neighbourhood had a bear problem, starting to pick up first thing in the morning so open bins didn't sit out too long. The locked bins made the difference in the past few years, he said. 

He has a few tips for residents: Unclip your bins before 7:45 a.m. on pickup day. (Bins can be unlocked between 5:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. on pickup days to prevent bears from getting in.) Make sure the tote is 30 centimetres from the curb and at least one metre away from anything else.

Don't fill your bins so much they can't close. GFL can only pick up what is in the bin — nothing on the ground.

"My worst nemesis is basketball nets," Gruber said — and hockey nets — because the forks can get tangled if they're placed to close to the bins. "People think they're doing it right because they put it a metre away from the pole, but what they've done is they just moved it underneath the nets."

 

Video by Keili Bartlett/The Squamish Chief

While he can empty up to 130 totes an hour (the standard is 100 an hour), having to get out of the truck can slow the process down to 90 an hour.

"I think people still think we get out [of the truck]," Gruber said. "Our company policy is we drive the truck, the truck does all the work. We try and do it as quickly and efficiently as possible, and when we have to jump out and unlock a bin or remind people to unlock the bin, put a sticker on top, it slows down the efficiency and the day."

The hardest thing is getting people to understand what is and isn't recyclable. The other week, Gruber found broom handles in a bin. He removed them and called the office to record the issue. Then, if the people who live there call, the company can tell them why what they put out wasn't collected. Stickers can also convey messages to the tote owners. Gruber said he finds talking to people in person works best when they want to see a change in behaviour.

"What I've noticed now recently, the new people who are moving to Squamish, they're trying to make it like the city or wherever they moved from. They don't understand what we're doing here. They don't get that it's bi-weekly and they don't get that certain things can't go in the bin."

Overall, though, Gruber said Squamish recycles well, although he wants to remind people not to recycle soft plastics like bags.

"There's just the odd percentage that they're just trying to get rid of stuff, but I would say the majority do a really good job."

The best part of the job, Gruber said, "are the kids. And some of the adults, actually. They love the truck. Especially when I pass a daycare or something, they're all hanging on the fences.

"This is my office. This is my view," he says as he drives through neighbourhoods, leaves changing colours on the trees, people in their yards, construction on-going. Life being lived, the same route every week, but changes never stop.

"This company is just going to keep growing," he said, adding there's no shortage of work.

 

Video by Keili Bartlett/The Squamish Chief

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