The Cleanup Never Ends

Gregory Urquiaga, UC Davis

Chip Swenson empties more than 190 trash cans a day on his route around the campus of the U. of California at Davis.
September 17, 2017

When students and faculty members arrive on campus for morning classes, everything seems clean. Trash cans are empty and lined, floors are vacuumed and swept, and blackboards are like new, with no traces of yesterday’s physics formulas and historical timelines.

But this blank slate of a campus won’t last for long.

Trash and recycling bins will fill up again with empty coffee cups, granola-bar wrappers, gum, and old course handouts. Spilled drinks leave dark stains on worn carpets.

Yet, when campus opens for another day of classes and research, all will be cleaned and forgotten.

For the modern residential college, image can be everything. Unlike the cities they inhabit, where overflowing trash is just another bullet point on a list of problems to address, colleges must ensure that their campuses make a good impression on prospective students and their families — who pay the tuition that keeps a college running. Not to mention the impressions made on current students.

Behind those impressions are the largely unacknowledged workers who pick up the trash and clean the campus, at all hours of every day.

The day starts at 3:30 a.m. for Chip Swen­son. He leaves his house half an hour later and gets to the University of California at Davis by 4:45 a.m. to begin his route around a portion of the 5,300-acre campus, emptying more than 190 trash cans — enough to fill four bins a day — and keeping the grounds clean.

At the University of Texas at Austin, Brandon Crenshaw arrives at 4 a.m. He gets his daily schedule and gets ready to spend the next six hours — on a good day — on his garbage truck, making more than 100 stops on the 434-acre campus as the sun rises.

The day has to begin early, with few people on campus and on the roads. "The vehicular traffic, the pedestrian traffic, construction — just everything combined can all increase the time of traveling, work," says Mr. Crenshaw, 32, who is one of the newest members of Austin’s solid-waste crew.

As of the most recent fiscal year, crew leaders like Mr. Crenshaw make $24,120 to $41,532 per year, according to a university spokesperson. Last year the crew picked up 2,400 tons of trash and 1,000 tons of materials for recycling.

Mr. Crenshaw started the job straight out of high school, in 2003, and has had such a good experience with the crew, some of whom have been there for more than 20 years, that he hopes to stay until retirement.

"Just seeing different people from all walks of life, cultures, backgrounds being able to support the university mission of taking care of things on campus," he says, "I love it here."

It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Crenshaw is also a Longhorns sports fan. Big games also make for some of his busiest days. His team will arrive around 5 a.m. on game day, well before the fans arrive, and come back the following morning around 2 a.m. to finish the cleanup.

"The first game is usually one of the most hectic games because the fans are so excited and pumped," he says, estimating that the crew uses three trucks to pick up all the trash and recycling.

The amount of trash for games later in the season, however, depends on how well the team is doing. "If they lose their first three games — hopefully they won’t do that this year — but if they lose their first three games, by the fourth game the attendance is a little bit lower, the trash is a lot lower, we finish a little bit earlier," he says.

Lost and Found

Groundskeepers like Mr. Swenson, at Davis, empty trash bins using hand carts. Along the way, they often find interesting items accidentally left behind.

Mr. Swenson has found IDs in the trash; an undeposited paycheck, which he tracked down the owner of; and a professor’s wedding ring, lost two years earlier. "It was amazing because it’s like finding a needle in a haystack," Mr. Swenson says. "He was flabbergasted."

An Anaheim native, Mr. Swenson got his first job at a Disneyland restaurant attached to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

After high school, however, Mr. Swenson didn’t want to return to the food-service industry. He joined the California Conservation Corps, known for its motto of "hard work, low pay, miserable conditions." There he would help clean up after forest fires and set up levees in the San Joaquin Valley.

But the corps has an age limit, and Mr. Swenson’s 25th birthday was coming up. He made his way to a housekeeping job in a Holiday Inn in Sacramento, where a UC Davis staff member encouraged him to fill out an application for the custodial-services department after he got her some ice and water. He began in a training program for the medical center, was transferred to the main campus in 1987 as a grounds laborer, and has worked there full time ever since.

Mr. Swenson, 57, says he is paid about $22 per hour. He chose this job, he says, because of its health-insurance benefits and job security. Other groundskeepers at UC Davis make $18.54 to $24.45 per hour, based on a tiered wage system negotiated through a union.

Mr. Swenson sees Davis, and its people, as similar to Disneyland and its guests.

"They’re coming here for a reason. Not for the rides or the entertainment. They’re coming here for a meeting, to go to school or a conference, to meet somebody on a professional level," he says. "I present myself very professional and courteous and polite because … what goes around comes around."

It’s an attitude that has Mr. Swenson doing more than just keeping the campus clean, says his supervisor, Tyson Mantor. "He’s often the first face that people see when they’re coming in to visit the campus, and he’s always smiling and happy to help. Chip’s a fantastic ambassador and steward to the campus."

The Graveyard Shift

With 26,000 tons of trash produced every year at UC Davis, there’s one other group of employees who have a hand in clearing waste: custodians.

Their shifts are at night, sometimes 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. or 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. As a custodial supervisor, Barry Berggren, 54, makes about $50,000 a year before taxes. Regular custodians make $16.47 to $19.58 per hour, while wages for senior custodians, like David Halk, 69, are $18.16 to $23.47 per hour. The job includes health insurance.

Equipped with their carts, these custodians go through the buildings on campus, often waiting on student groups and faculty members to finish using rooms, to get them ready for the next day. Sometimes that routine is interrupted by severe weather, cutting out electricity to research labs dependent on refrigerated samples, or by leaking air conditioners or broken pipes.

Mr. Berggren and Mr. Halk recall a time when a broken air conditioner flooded five floors of a building late at night. Custodians from around the campus rushed to the scene to start cleaning up, equipped with rags and mops as they sloshed through the water. They managed to clean the building in two hours.

"People come to work the next day and maybe somebody in their office notices a cardboard box in the corner is wet on the bottom," Mr. Halk says. "Next morning, nobody knows."

These custodians, too, do more than keep the campus clean. They’re responsible for locking and unlocking the buildings and for helping to guide people out in an emergency.

It’s the element of being unseen and unrecognized that Mr. Halk and Mr. Berggren acknowledge is just a part of their job.

"Somebody’s got to clean those bathrooms, dust the halls, polish the drinking fountains," Mr. Halk says. "It’s unsung and unheralded kind of work, but overall, it really is an important function to keep the campus usable and a pleasant place to be."

"People don’t realize what we do until we don’t do it," Mr. Berggren says. "And then that’s when they realize all the stuff that’s getting done."