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Garbage Collector Career Guide

What is a garbage collector?

Garbage collectors are responsible for collecting trash from commercial, industrial, and residential properties, including single-family home communities and apartment complexes. They follow designated routes in garbage trucks and may empty garbage cans by hand or using specialized hydraulic lifts attached to the truck. They also collect trash from large dumpsters. They compact the trash in the back of the truck and transport it to a garbage dump, landfill, incineration plant, or recycling center. Typically, these professionals run different routes on different days. Homeowners take their trash cans to the curb on specific trash pickup days.    

Garbage collectors play an important role in ensuring that communities and business areas remain clean and sanitary. They put safety first when operating lifts and driving trucks so as not to damage anything. They may come to residential areas several times a week to collect trash and also come on different days to collect recyclables. 

Garbage collectors may need to inspect garbage to ensure it is properly disposed of and no toxic chemicals, car batteries, and other potentially harmful or inappropriate items are present in dumpsters and trash cans. They may work for local municipalities or private companies. Some private companies include waste removal services, hauling services, or removal of items that require special handling due to toxicity or size. These individuals are specifically trained to handle hazardous materials.

Qualifications and eligibility

A garbage collector typically needs to have a high school diploma or GED. Some employers may prefer candidates who have completed at least some college courses. Biology, chemistry, and physics classes can help you understand the science behind waste management.

Many employers require that candidates undergo a certain amount of training before they can work in this role. The training programs teach students how to operate the machinery and equipment they will use on the job and how to properly handle and dispose of waste materials. Some garbage collectors receive on-the-job training, which is usually specialized to the specific procedures and requirements of the employer.

Garbage collectors must have a valid driver’s license to operate a garbage collection vehicle. Depending on where you live, you might also need to have a certified commercial driver’s license (CDL). These individuals must have clean driving records with no DUIs, accidents, or any other negative information on their driving records. They also normally have to pass a criminal background check and drug screening. Some employers require candidates to pass a company driving exam.

Garbage collectors need to be physically fit as the job may require them to lift heavy objects such as trash cans and recycling bins, heavy bags, green waste and compost, furniture, and other heavy items. They may walk from the truck to pick up trash many times over a day. They often jump from the truck, pick up nearby trash from cans, empty it into the truck, and jump back onto the truck, which can become tiring. 

Garbage collectors must have good communication skills as they work in teams and ensure everyone is on the same page. They may also have to interact with residents to answer questions or address concerns while on their route. 

Other skills these professionals need include attention to detail and problem-solving. They may have to sort through trash to separate it into different bins for the dump and recycling center. They must be able to pick out harmful items and properly dispose of them. They also need to be able to quickly find solutions to problems encountered on their routes, such as running into aggressive animals, the truck breaking down, or finding materials that don’t belong in the trash. 

You’ll need a commercial driver’s license if you plan to drive the truck. There are many ways to take a CDL course, including online options like Virtual Drive USA.

Work environment

Garbage collectors work outdoors in all types of weather conditions. They are often exposed to unpleasant odors, noise, dirt, and debris. They may encounter hazardous materials, such as broken glass, syringes, toxic chemicals, and caustic chemicals. They may be susceptible to health risks due to inhaling toxic fumes or dust, attacking dogs, traffic accidents, and more. The work can be physically demanding, and garbage collectors often lift heavy objects and work in uncomfortable positions daily.  

Typical work hours

Garbage collectors typically work 40 hours per week, but their schedules usually start very early in the morning. They may work until late in the afternoon to complete their daily routes. They may also have to work weekends and holidays to keep up with the job’s demands.    

Types of garbage collectors

Garbage collectors are typically either drivers or garbage pickup workers. The driver may also pick up garbage or may operate a hydraulic lift to empty cans, dumpsters, and other trash receptacles into the truck. The different types of garbage that they handle include:

Residential garbage

This includes the typical trash from homes and apartment complexes that residents put in their trash cans. 

Bulk waste 

Bulk waste consists of large, bulky items that can’t be transported by a regular garbage truck. Garbage collectors are specifically trained to handle these types of items. They typically operate heavy-duty trucks or flatbed trucks to collect items. They may operate equipment such as a winch to lift heavy items onto the truck. Some typical bulk waste items include appliances, sofas, mattresses, chairs, refrigerators, washing machines, and large recreation equipment. 

Hazardous waste 

Hazardous waste is handled by garbage collectors who are specially trained to handle hazardous waste. They may operate special trucks for hazardous waste collection and take appropriate safety precautions such as wearing protective masks, gloves, and suits.

Even with proper precautions, this job can be dangerous as collectors may need to handle toxic and medical waste. Typical examples of hazardous waste include aerosols, ammunition, antifreeze, gasoline, fire extinguishers, motor oil, paint, pesticides and insecticides, and car batteries. 

Solid waste 

Solid waste consists of garbage, refuse, sludge, or other waste from a wastewater treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility. Solid waste collectors also pick up industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural waste. 


Recyclable items are trash items that can be turned into new products. Many municipalities instruct residents to separate their garbage from their recyclables and pick them up on different days of the week. Common recyclable items include cardboard, paper, food boxes, mail, beverage cans, food cans, and glass and plastic bottles, jars, and jugs.

Income potential

The earning potential for a garbage collector can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and area of research.  

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for refuse and recyclable material collectors was $42,780 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,950, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $62,310. The top-paying states for refuse and recyclable material collectors were:
    • New York – $ 63,930
    • Washington – $ 56,950
    • California – $ 56,610
    • Oregon – $ 53,100
    • District of Columbia – $ 52,050
  • The top-paying metro areas were:
    • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA – $70,740
    • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA – $69,470
    • Napa, CA – $60,830
    • Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA – $60,750
    • Salinas, CA – $60,390
  • The average trash collector salary in the United States on Salary.com was $40,606 as of September 2022, and the range was between $35,909 and $46,550.   
  • As of September 2022, the average annual pay for a garbage collector in the United States is $25,013 according to ZipRecruiter. Annual salaries are as high as $32,000 and as low as $15,500, with the majority of these salaries currently falling between $22,000 and $27,000. 
  • Per USNews, garbage collectors made a median salary of $39,100 in 2020. The top 25th percentile made an average of $51,530 that year, and the lowest 25th percentile made an average of $30,180.  

Position trends

Career Explorer projects the job market to grow by an estimated 13% through 2026 for this position. There were an estimated 136,000 garbage collectors in the United States in 2016, and that number is expected to grow for refuse and recyclable material collectors, with 24,550 new jobs filled by 2029.

Career path

Some garbage collectors do the same work for many years, but some career path opportunities are available. Many can obtain office jobs handling administrative duties like managing workers’ schedules and signing pay cheques. Others can advance into managerial positions to supervise garbage collection teams, maintain and adjust garbage pickup routes, or create more efficient waste management strategies. They may also handle new hires and schedule maintenance and repairs on trucks and equipment. Some other career paths for a garbage collector include:

  • Senior Garbage Collector
  • Garbage Collector Team Leader
  • Manager of a Garbage Collection Facility
  • Owner of a Garbage Collection Firm

Garbage collectors can also advance into similar careers such as:

  • Delivery Truck Drivers 
  • Heavy and Tractor-Trailer Truck Drivers
  • Material Moving Machine Operators
  • Material Recording Clerks
  • Water Transportation Workers
  • Material Moving Machine Operators
  • Water Transportation Workers

Steps to becoming a garbage collector

1. Get your high school diploma

Before becoming a garbage collector, you will need a high school diploma or a GED.

2. Pass your background checks

Before working as a garbage collector, you must pass a drug screening and a background check.

3. Get your commercial driver’s license

If your goal is to drive a garbage truck, you must get a commercial driver’s license. You will need to pass an exam and training course to obtain your license.

4. Get in shape

Working as a garbage collector can be physically demanding. Unless you are only driving a truck, you must constantly hop off and on the truck and lift heavy objects. Getting in shape will help your chances of receiving and keeping a job in this position. 

5. Get training

You may either be able to train on the job, or your employer may require that you complete a separate training course before working as a garbage collector. 

Best online courses for a garbage collector:

6. Consider hazardous waste training

If you are interested in working with handling and disposing of hazardous waste, you will typically need additional training to handle these materials. Training typically includes strict procedures for collecting, identifying, transporting, and disposing of hazardous waste.

7. Join professional organizations

A professional organization is great for finding job opportunities and online resources. You’ll also find networking opportunities and be able to build relationships with others in the industry. Some of the top organizations for garbage collectors are:

Tips for becoming a garbage collector

If you plan to become a garbage collector, a few things can give you the edge you need. Here are some tips:

  • Get into shape by following a regular workout routine. Garbage collecting is a physically demanding job, and you will need to be physically fit to be successful. 
  • Get your high school diploma or GED
  • Keep your driving record clean
  • Decide whether you want to work for a city or local government or a private waste management company.
  • Research the different types of garbage, such as recyclable, solid, green, and hazardous waste. Become familiar with identifying each type.
  • Separate recyclables and other garbage in your home. This is good practice for later on when you may have to do it as part of your job. 
  • Become familiar with different types of waste disposal options, including landfills, incinerators, and recycling plants.
  • Get your commercial driver’s license. Even if you initially aren’t driving a truck, you never know when the opportunity will arise, so you’ll want to be ready for it.

Garbage collector interview questions to expect

  1. Are you comfortable working with heavy machinery?
  2. How would you handle an angry resident because you won’t take something inappropriate that they want you to take? 
  3. What would you do if you found a valuable item in the garbage?
  4. Do you like working outside, regardless of the weather?
  5. Do you have experience operating a truck’s hydraulic lift?
  6. What process do you use to sort garbage at the landfill?
  7. Have you ever worked with collecting and disposing of hazardous materials?
  8. How would you handle an attacking dog on your route?

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