The sun had only begun to cast shadows Friday as garbage collectors jumped into their trucks to begin routes that have remained virtually unchanged for more than 40 years. But starting Monday, sweeping changes will come to Baltimore's sanitation routine.
City garbage and recycling crews will be placed on newly drafted routes, and trash and recycling will each be picked up once a week, instead of the former schedule, when trash was picked up twice a week and recycling once every two weeks.
Residents will be limited to 96 gallons of trash - about three garbage cans - each week, but they may set out an unlimited amount of recycling. Crews will continue to pick up trash in the same location and will begin their routes at 6 a.m., rather than 7 a.m.
The new schedule is part of Mayor Sheila Dixon's plan to make Baltimore cleaner, said Ian Brennan, her spokesman. She hopes to encourage people to reduce what they throw away by limiting trash pickup days and increasing recycling pickup days.
The plan will affect the intricate pickup routes that wind through alleys and down narrow streets and the fleets of garbage collectors who face putrid mounds of trash everyday.
Early Friday, a three-man crew in Federal Hill started the morning as quickly as it could, darting from street to street at a pace most people would struggle to keep up with. The crew members knew that the sooner they completed their route, the sooner they could go home.
Two loaders jumped onto the back of the truck even as it was moving, and the driver maneuvered past parked cars and around sharp corners as if he were driving a coupe.
"I'm the trash man," said loader Louis Gibson, 42, grinning. He has been on the same route for 10 years in Locust Point. But on Friday, he worked with a different crew in Federal Hill.
Following closely behind the truck, Gibson grabbed the nearest can and tossed its contents into the back, making sure to stand to one side so he wouldn't get splashed by any stray trash squeezed out by the compactor. "I've got hit in the eye with glass one time," he said. "I've seen a guy get hit in the face with feces. ... This job is very hazardous to us."
Gibson said he once had to fight off a rat that jumped out of a can and onto his chest.
Running down the alley, Gibson grabbed multiple bags of trash and, in one swift motion, threw them through the air, stopping only to greet residents on their way to work. The previous day, he said, his crew picked up 19.5 tons of trash.
"A lot of people can't do this job," he said. "You have to be really in shape to do this job."
The Department of Public Works recently completed a yearlong overhaul of its entire trash collection system to create more of an equal workload for crews, according to Valentina Ukwuoma, head of the Bureau of Solid Waste. For the first time in decades, the department redrew collection routes to better match the city's current population patterns.
"This is the first time in 40 years we said, 'Look, the city has changed and we need to look at a more efficient way to manage that change and provide services,' " Ukwuoma said. "You can't just continue to collect trash like we did in the '50s."
Although the system has been "tweaked" over the years, she said, there was an imbalance in collection loads. Areas of Southeast and Southwest Baltimore had many vacant homes that did not present a need for weekly garbage services, which the department took into account when it began revamping its routes last July. It also looked at the volume of trash and available equipment and personnel.
By making the system more efficient, Ukwuoma said, the department has freed up 22 crews to clean alleys.
The change concerns garbage-truck driver Antoine Dunaway, 39, who has been on the same route for nine years. He anticipates that there will be more trash to pick up if crews come through only once a week.
"This is the city. ... There's more trash in the summertime," he said. "But who am I to judge?"
Dunaway and the two loaders used a system of shouts to communicate over the noise of the truck. Dunaway skillfully managed to keep one eye on the road and one on his crew in the back, while also operating the compactor.
Gibson stopped briefly to assure an elderly resident that her garbage had been taken and that she need not worry about coming down the stairs to put the can closer to the alley.
Gibson will miss his old route. The residents there, he said, call him and his crew "the best trash men they ever had."
Baltimore's new garbage routine
Garbage and recycling collection days will be changing this week for city residents.
* Garbage will be collected only once a week. There is a 96-gallon limit, or about three cans, on the amount of trash you can set out. Trash must be set out in cans with tight-fitting lids.
* Recycling will be collected once a week. There is no limit on the amount of recycling you can set out.
* Garbage and recycling must be placed outside no later than 6 a.m. the day of collection.
* You can call 311 with questions or to inform the city about illegal dumping and missed trash.
* To find out what day your garbage and recycling needs to be out, you can also go to the city's Web site: baltimorecity.gov.