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Garbage hauler unloads on life in the wastestream

By Carol Clark Correspondent

PORTLAND, Oregon (CNN) -- They say you can tell a lot about people by looking at their garbage. If so, then Gaylen Kiltow is something of an expert on the lifestyles of the people of Portland over the past few decades.

"It's a proven fact," says Kiltow, a second-generation garbage hauler who was 7 years old when he started helping his father on his route. "When scientists dig up ancient cities, what's the first thing they look for? The dump site. They can tell a lot by looking at their landfills. Some of the civilizations that disappeared were very wasteful."

It is early evening and Kiltow, who begins work around 4 a.m., is about ready to call it a day. He is wearing shorts and Birkenstock sandals and sitting in a recliner in his living room in northeast Portland. The working class neighborhood of manicured lawns and small but perfectly maintained homes looks as immaculate as a Swiss village.

The pride evident in the small community extends to most of Oregon, which was the first state in the nation to require return deposits on bottles.

Kiltow: 'I know garbage.'  

The average Portland household recycles 672 pounds of waste per year, which is significantly higher than the national average of 472 pounds.  

"Our little bit of green around us is something that we all kind of cherish," says Kiltow. "As soon as you cross the border, into Washington, you'll see bottles and litter all along the side of the highway, but not over here. It's very unique, this little world we have."

Kiltow grew up in a home just down the street from where he lives. His parents bought a garbage hauling business in 1950, the year he was born. Portland had 234 small, family-owned garbage companies serving the city back then.

His mother kept the books and went door-to-door collecting the monthly fee of about $1.50 per household. His father did the physical labor.

"It was one man and an open-box truck," Kiltow says. "The box dumped out just like a dump truck. To gain compaction you would physically walk on the garbage. My dad would take each cardboard box and tear all the corners down so it would flatten."

His father put sideboards on the truck so he could increase the load. He parked the truck by a telephone pole and used the rungs to reach the top.

The garbage cans were kept in back yards, in cubbyholes or garages. A space-saver kitchen idea in the 1950s saw the introduction of garbage cans sunken into holes in back porches. Homeowners would keep piling stuff in, stomp on it, then pile in more.

"There were no weight constraints or anything like that. This was before OSHA," says Kiltow. "It was hard work in those days. But I never really heard my dad complain about it."

About 37 percent of Portland's garbage is recycled, including plastic bottles.  

The Kiltows knew all of their customers by name. "My dad always told me, 'You treat all your customers the same, whether they give you a jug of whiskey or cookies. You treat them all the same.'"

'It was good, clean fun'

Kiltow often accompanied his father, helping him with the lightweight items, such as cardboard boxes, and collecting scrap metal and rags for recycling. "My Dad would say, 'Here's a radiator,' or, 'Here's some lead. Throw that in the junk box.' We'd take it to Swift Boulevard Junk. The owner, Don, would give me 50 cents and my dad would say, 'You did really good today.'"

Even Kiltow's memories of his childhood holidays at a mountain cabin outside Portland revolve around garbage. "It was right near the dump and we'd go there and shoot rats. You're not a rodent lover, are you? Things were simpler then. It was good clean fun."

When his father died in 1974, Kiltow took over the hauling business. He was joined by his wife, Bonny, who also grew up in his neighborhood. The couple has known each other since they were 11.

"She does the book work and I do the back work," Kiltow says.

They bought a truck with a compactor, hired one full-time employee, and built the business into 1,250 residential and 70 commercial businesses.

Garbage service became standardized and residents were issued roll-carts to leave by the curb.

"You don't have as much chance to see the customer now," Kiltow says. "It's more impersonal since the garbage has moved to the curb."

But he retains a personal connection with his long-time customers.

"We still have people who put out cans of pop and cookies for us," Kiltow says. "Last week it was Fig Newtons. One lady gives us homemade jellyrolls. She puts them in a Ziplock baggie and leaves them on top of the garbage can for us. This has been going on for years."

Recycling 'the right thing to do'

Haulers began offering recycling services in the 1980s.

"We were passing out flyers about recycling and this lady said, 'Oh, Honey, you'll be able to make all kinds of money now,'" Kiltow recalls. "But to this day, recycling has cost me money. The value of materials fluctuates and it has never supported itself. But it was the right thing to do."

Kiltow formed a recycling cooperative of 10 small haulers. On Saturdays the haulers, their wives and their children gathered at the recycling center to clean out the plastic pails they gave to customers for collecting the newspapers, magazines, bottles and other recycling materials.

The Lions Club had dibs on the proceeds from recycled phone books, so the haulers helped gather them for free.

"There were tons and tons and tons of phone books. We'd all back up our trucks and then transload them into trailers," Kiltow says. "Our dentist would be there helping, along with our kids. We'd shove the kids up at the top of the stack and hand them the books."

Far West Fibers recycling center in Portland processes about 8,000 tons of material a month, including about 2,000 tons of cardboard.  

Advances in recycling technology come slowly. Workers at the Far West Fibers plant must sort paper by hand into dozens of grades, a time-consuming, tedious process.  

Portland was one of the first cities in the United States to offer extensive curbside recycling in the late 1980s. Many other cities have since picked up the trend.

In 1987, a major national garbage hauler bought a route in Portland. It offered Kiltow's customers garbage services for less than half of what he charged. "The advantage they had was franchises," Kiltow says. "I didn't have the contract in Alabama, Florida and New York, so I couldn't subsidize my route. They were offering these low prices to get rid of the small guys."

Despite the cut-rate offer, "we didn't lose one customer," Kiltow says. "I think it's called public relations."

But today the number of garbage haulers in Portland has dropped dramatically from more than 200 to 62. One large commercial hauler now handles about 50 percent of the business. Only about 40 small haulers remain in operation.

Kiltow himself is slowing down, and his two grown sons are not interested in taking over his route. He worries about finding someone local to eventually take over.

"Basically, when you've got franchises, what you have is an absentee owner," he says. "A bunch of guys who don't know what the hell's going on. If you call to complain, you talk to somebody back East. We are losing our mom and pop businesses -- personal care, personal service, a sense of responsibility. You want to know about sustainable cities? That's what sustainability is. It's all going out the window."





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