Oct 26, 2020, 13:00 PM

You might think that the empty streets and ‘ghost-town’ feel of Melbourne these past few months would have made life easier for the people who collect our rubbish. Surely there’d be less rubbish, and the bin-cleaning schedules could be relaxed a little?

“Not a bit of it,” says Leigh Powell, who’s been driving one of Citywide’s bin-washing trucks through the COVID-19 pandemic. “Even though it’s been very quiet, essential workers are still generating rubbish, and the bins need washing every night. Although I have to say – we really miss our chats with the locals!”

Of Citywide’s own essential workers, perhaps none attract less attention – or appreciation – than the crews who man our waste collection trucks in the dead of night. Across the city, we have 14 drivers and jockeys emptying, sorting and cleaning up to 1,000 street bins – including 400 self-compacting solar bins – between 8.30pm and 4.30am each night.

“Waste collections have not stopped or slowed down at all during COVID,” says Michael Powell, who supervises the Melbourne night crews. “We’ve had to change the way we do things, of course – scrubbing down the trucks more thoroughly, wearing masks and observing social distancing. But we’ve still been at it, all night, every night.”

Fighting the virus

The night crews drive rotating rosters, with several collection trucks accompanied by a bin-washing truck – known affectionately as “the giant dishwasher” – which puts every bin through its high-pressure hot water system.

Leigh, 38, says in spite of the reduced foot traffic, the presence of COVID-19 has made their work even more critical. “If you consider that the virus can stay on surfaces for many hours and all the bins are in busy areas, this is an important part of the public health effort,” he says.

“I love this job, but I have to say I prefer it when it’s busier,” adds Leigh. “People are always coming up to see what we’re doing, saying thank-you and wanting to have a chat. I’ve missed that a lot. But it’s getting a bit busier now the curfew has lifted.”

Leigh drives the bin-washing truck with his offsider, Ayden Hocking, usually accompanied by a collection truck driven by Ben McGrath, who scrapes out the bins first – doing what he calls “a pre-wash”.

Ben, 31, has been at Citywide for 13 years, and says the past two years on the night shift have been some of the most enjoyable. “We have a small and very friendly group on nights, and the crews are often rotating, so we do slightly different work each week,” he says.

Returning to a new ‘normal’

Like Leigh, Ben’s looking forward to things getting busier – if not entirely back to the way they were. “Melbourne can be really busy at night, and we’ve always had to adapt our schedules according to events and crowds, leaving the busiest places ’til last,” says Ben.

“In the past few months, it hasn’t really mattered where we started and finished. But now it’s picking up a bit, I’m looking forward to things getting back to a bit more ‘normal’.

“It’ll be different for us when the cafés and restaurants start doing outdoor dining – we’ll have to plan with the regulations around that, and how busy different places will become.

“But we’re used to planning our schedules around different events, road closures and crowds. Like I say, it’s never boring in waste collection!”

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