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  • I was about 10 years old

  • on a camping trip with my dad

  • in the Adirondack Mountains, a wilderness area

  • in the northern part of New York State.

  • It was a beautiful day.

  • The forest was sparkling.

  • The sun made the leaves glow like stained glass,

  • and if it weren't for the path we were following,

  • we could almost pretend we were

  • the first human beings to ever walk that land.

  • We got to our campsite.

  • It was a lean-to on a bluff

  • looking over a crystal, beautiful lake,

  • when I discovered a horror.

  • Behind the lean-to was a dump,

  • maybe 40 feet square

  • with rotting apple cores

  • and balled-up aluminum foil,

  • and a dead sneaker.

  • And I was astonished,

  • I was very angry, and I was deeply confused.

  • The campers who were too lazy

  • to take out what they had brought in,

  • who did they think would clean up after them?

  • That question stayed with me,

  • and it simplified a little.

  • Who cleans up after us?

  • However you configure

  • or wherever you place the us,

  • who cleans up after us in Istanbul?

  • Who cleans up after us in Rio

  • or in Paris or in London?

  • Here in New York,

  • the Department of Sanitation cleans up after us,

  • to the tune of 11,000 tons of garbage

  • and 2,000 tons of recyclables every day.

  • I wanted to get to know them as individuals.

  • I wanted to understand who takes the job.

  • What's it like to wear the uniform

  • and bear that burden?

  • So I started a research project with them.

  • I rode in the trucks and walked the routes

  • and interviewed people in offices and facilities

  • all over the city,

  • and I learned a lot,

  • but I was still an outsider.

  • I needed to go deeper.

  • So I took the job as a sanitation worker.

  • I didn't just ride in the trucks now. I drove the trucks.

  • And I operated the mechanical brooms and I plowed the snow.

  • It was a remarkable privilege

  • and an amazing education.

  • Everyone asks about the smell.

  • It's there, but it's not as prevalent as you think,

  • and on days when it is really bad,

  • you get used to it rather quickly.

  • The weight takes a long time to get used to.

  • I knew people who were several years on the job

  • whose bodies were still adjusting to the burden

  • of bearing on your body

  • tons of trash every week.

  • Then there's the danger.

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,

  • sanitation work is one of the 10 most dangerous

  • occupations in the country,

  • and I learned why.

  • You're in and out of traffic all day,

  • and it's zooming around you.

  • It just wants to get past you, so it's often

  • the motorist is not paying attention.

  • That's really bad for the worker.

  • And then the garbage itself is full of hazards

  • that often fly back out of the truck

  • and do terrible harm.

  • I also learned about the relentlessness of trash.

  • When you step off the curb

  • and you see a city from behind a truck,

  • you come to understand that trash

  • is like a force of nature unto itself.

  • It never stops coming.

  • It's also like a form of respiration or circulation.

  • It must always be in motion.

  • And then there's the stigma.

  • You put on the uniform, and you become invisible

  • until someone is upset with you for whatever reason

  • like you've blocked traffic with your truck,

  • or you're taking a break too close to their home,

  • or you're drinking coffee in their diner,

  • and they will come and scorn you,

  • and tell you that they don't want you anywhere near them.

  • I find the stigma especially ironic,

  • because I strongly believe that sanitation workers

  • are the most important labor force

  • on the streets of the city, for three reasons.

  • They are the first guardians of public health.

  • If they're not taking away trash

  • efficiently and effectively every day,

  • it starts to spill out of its containments,

  • and the dangers inherent to it threaten us

  • in very real ways.

  • Diseases we've had in check for decades and centuries

  • burst forth again and start to harm us.

  • The economy needs them.

  • If we can't throw out the old stuff,

  • we have no room for the new stuff,

  • so then the engines of the economy

  • start to sputter when consumption is compromised.

  • I'm not advocating capitalism, I'm just pointing out their relationship.

  • And then there's what I call

  • our average, necessary quotidian velocity.

  • By that I simply mean

  • how fast we're used to moving

  • in the contemporary day and age.

  • We usually don't care for, repair, clean, carry around

  • our coffee cup, our shopping bag,

  • our bottle of water.

  • We use them, we throw them out, we forget about them,

  • because we know there's a workforce

  • on the other side that's going to take it all away.

  • So I want to suggest today a couple of ways

  • to think about sanitation that will perhaps help

  • ameliorate the stigma

  • and bring them into this conversation

  • of how to craft a city that is sustainable and humane.

  • Their work, I think, is kind of liturgical.

  • They're on the streets every day, rhythmically.

  • They wear a uniform in many cities.

  • You know when to expect them.

  • And their work lets us do our work.

  • They are almost a form of reassurance.

  • The flow that they maintain

  • keeps us safe from ourselves,

  • from our own dross, our cast-offs,

  • and that flow must be maintained always

  • no matter what.

  • On the day after September 11 in 2001,

  • I heard the growl of a sanitation truck on the street,

  • and I grabbed my infant son and I ran downstairs

  • and there was a man doing his paper recycling route

  • like he did every Wednesday.

  • And I tried to thank him for doing his work

  • on that day of all days,

  • but I started to cry.

  • And he looked at me,

  • and he just nodded, and he said,

  • "We're going to be okay.

  • We're going to be okay."

  • It was a little while later that I started

  • my research with sanitation,

  • and I met that man again.

  • His name is Paulie, and we worked together many times,

  • and we became good friends.

  • I want to believe that Paulie was right.

  • We are going to be okay.

  • But in our effort to reconfigure

  • how we as a species exist on this planet,

  • we must include and take account of

  • all the costs, including the very real human cost

  • of the labor.

  • And we also would be well informed

  • to reach out to the people who do that work

  • and get their expertise

  • on how do we think about,

  • how do we create systems around sustainability

  • that perhaps take us from curbside recycling,

  • which is a remarkable success across 40 years,

  • across the United States and countries around the world,

  • and lift us up to a broader horizon

  • where we're looking at other forms of waste

  • that could be lessened

  • from manufacturing and industrial sources.

  • Municipal waste, what we think of when we talk about garbage,

  • accounts for three percent of the nation's waste stream.

  • It's a remarkable statistic.

  • So in the flow of your days,

  • in the flow of your lives,

  • next time you see someone whose job is

  • to clean up after you,

  • take a moment to acknowledge them.

  • Take a moment to say thank you.

  • (Applause)

I was about 10 years old

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B1 US TED sanitation trash stigma truck uniform

【TED】What I discovered in New York City trash

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    VoiceTube posted on 2013/12/11
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