"This is how the other half lives," Billy Rivera says as he wheels his garbage truck through a neighborhood nestled between Tatum Boulevard and the mountain preserves. The houses are big and pretentious, Taj Mahals in stucco and red tile with lawns like putting greens and shrubbery like a Philippine rain forest.

It's recycling day, and so blue, 90-gallon recycling barrels obediently line the cul-de-sacs, brimming with bottles and lawn-mower throttles, beer cans, old fans, paper from business proposals, boxes from garbage disposals.

"On the South Side, the barrels are less full," Rivera shouts over the roar of the engine. "Let's face it: They're poorer. They recycle their own things." He reflects a moment. "Come to think of it, I've seen people up here going through the cans for the aluminum. Maybe that's how they got here."
In this neighborhood, people shred their bill stubs before throwing them away, in case burglars or creditors go through the cans to see how much they're worth. Rivera once saw the discarded bank-card bill of an account holder with a credit limit of $45,000. "We're walking around proud as a rooster because we got a limit of five grand, and this guy can buy a car on his Visa." Once, a man ran up to the driver's window, asked Rivera how much the truck cost, then shouted, "I'll buy you one. I want my garbage picked up today!"

Rivera has driven a truck for the City of Phoenix for 14 years; he's been with the recycling program since its pilot-program days in 1988. The program now reaches 50,000 homes; by 1997, it will reach 285,000, and though it will not be the largest municipal recycling program in the world in terms of tonnage, it will be the most comprehensive. Even in its current, interim stage, Phoenix's recycling program is more ambitious than any other system, taking newspaper, scrap paper and junk mail, magazines, cardboard, corrugated board, glass, aluminum, clothing, several kinds of plastic containers, plastic bags, tin, steel and other scrap metals that turn up in the form of broken appliances or lawn chairs. What makes it unique is that it is a "single stream" system, meaning recyclables all go in one barrel and get sorted out later. Most municipal programs ask residents to sort recyclables out themselves. But the Phoenix program collects 20 different items; it would be ludicrous to give residents 20 different bins or bags and expect people to put them at the curb on collection day. Besides, it would be more labor-intensive, requiring extra workers to hoist the various products into the truck. Phoenix went to one-man automated trucks years ago.

Rivera's one man, but he's a big one. He's a couple of inches over six feet, a healthy few pounds over 200. The truck he drives is also economy-size, 15 tons, with two steering wheels built cockpit-style into the cab. Rivera fills what would ordinarily be the passenger side, his big frame bouncing on the air seat, the whole truck creaking, squeaking, kidney tweaking. He pulls up alongside a pair of fluorescent-light tubes sticking an inch or two out of a bin. Phoenicians are so enthusiastic about recycling that they tend to err on the overzealous side. They know they can recycle metal and glass, so it would seem likely they could recycle light bulbs. But they're wrong. In the back of Rivera's truck, there are bags of grass, plastic pool toys, foam rubber--things that aren't recyclable, mixed in with all the things that are. People try to recycle hoses and toys and furniture. Rivera's seen loads of medical-style latex gloves in a hopper from a nursing home. Other collectors have seen syringes. Or packing popcorn: "On a windy day, you think you're in Flagstaff in a snowstorm," Rivera says. "You blink and it's gone down the road."

And so he decides to dump the tubes into the truck, anyway. "It'll break on the outside and make a mess," he explains. "You leave it out there, you don't know who's going to get ahold of it--a kid or something." Jiggling the controls like a kid playing Nintendo, he eases the truck's automatic arms around the barrel, then balances the can and the tubes up and through the loading door. Rivera once won a garbage-truck rodeo held in Vancouver, British Columbia; he could probably use those pincers to take a splinter out of a little girl's finger. The arms resound against the steel truck body with a banging, clanging, that rattles the truck and its occupants. The bin drops back on the curb with a bone-shaking thud.

@body:The city sends its recyclables to a Materials Recycling Facility--or MRF, pronounced "murph"--on University Drive at 19th Street. It's operated by a New England-based corporation named CRInc, which is running a makeshift interim program as it builds a processing plant that could be the setting for some trashy, futuristic Arnold Schwarzenegger flick.

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Michael Kiefer