PASADENA — Like the Rose Parade, like Mother's Day dinner at the Huntington Hotel, like Caltech student pranks, it's been a Pasadena tradition for years: back-yard trash collection.
While neighboring Angelenos suffer the indignities of leaking plastic bags, dented metal cans and bulging cardboard boxes piled willy-nilly at the curb on pickup days, Pasadena residents for more than 40 years have kept their rubbish neatly out of sight in their back yards. From there, city trash collection crews discreetly cart it away.
"Pasadena residents have enjoyed an inalienable right not to touch their trash, a right not to have to remove it from the back yard, or even think about it," said Barbara Cathey, a city administrator who oversees the city's trash collection services.
Now, that right is finally being abridged.
Under a four-year program that began last October, the city's 27,000 back-yard trash collection accounts will be converted to curbside automated service.
Already, 3,000 residents wheel their trash out to the curb in 100-gallon plastic containers that are scooped up and emptied by the hydraulic arms of new refuse trucks. By next July, 8,000 more residents will change their habits and start wheeling out their trash.
The reason for the change is economic. As a user of Scholl Canyon Landfill, the city is required to recycle glass, metal and paper, a requirement that will be easier and cheaper to accommodate with curbside collection, Cathey said.
But the conversion to curbside means the end of a familiar sight in Pasadena: scooter-riding trash collectors.
Every weekday morning, the quiet of the city's residential streets is broken by the rumble of a huge trash truck and the buzzing of the three accompanying Cushman scooters driven by helmeted trash collectors.
The trash-truck operator parks the big truck and bangs a metal collection bin hard onto the asphalt in front of it, while the collectors fan out through the streets on their three-wheeled, modified golf carts.
Zipping backward into driveways, driving while standing up and using other jockey's tricks, the collectors scurry their carts along like circling honeybees. They hop off their scooters, empty the homeowners' cans, hop back on the scooter and return to the big truck to dump their mini-loads. All of it is done at top speed because their workday ends when the trash is emptied.
But even as they whiz along, the collectors will stop and bend over to scoop up any bits of fallen debris in the street.
"We provide a very high level of service here, and our residents expect the crews to take time to sweep up fallen leaves and pieces of paper," Cathey said.
Pasadena's labor-intensive trash service began in the 1950s, when back-yard incinerators were banned. Crews originally hauled out the trash manually, strapping containers on their backs and walking out of back yards under loads of refuse. The scooters were added as a technological advancement in the 1970s.
Today, with rising labor costs and recycling expenses, back-yard service is a rarity. In Los Angeles County, only South Pasadena, San Marino and Rolling Hills Estates provide citywide back-yard collection.
In 1982, South Pasadena considered switching to curbside service. But an advisory special election soundly defeated that idea when 70.4% of the voters cast ballots against it.
"That's what they said in 1982, and I don't think they've changed much since," said City Clerk Ruby Kerr.
San Marino and Rolling Hills Estates residents, meanwhile, are willing to pay as much as $30 monthly to keep unattractive trash cans off their streets.
"It's been deemed a blight to have trash cans sitting out at the curb," said Keith Till, a San Marino city administrator.
Nationwide, the service is offered in only a handful of cities such as Oakland, Las Cruces, N.M.; El Paso, Tex., and a few Florida cities.
By switching to automated curbside service, Pasadena jumps from a traditional, labor-intensive service to a state-of-the art system. Instead of four-person crews removing trash from 500 homes, one driver can service up to 700 homes.
The trucks that allow curbside pickup were invented in the 1960s in Phoenix, Ariz., by a city worker striving to reduce on-the-job injuries, Cathey said. The worker rigged a hydraulic arm to a trash truck. The ungainly contraption was nicknamed "Godzilla," after the science-fiction monster.
Pasadena's hydraulic trucks operate the same way. The truck's arm grips the curbside container, flips it overhead to empty it and then smacks it back down on the ground. The procedure has been clocked at nine seconds flat.
Cost savings to residents under the new system will reach $1.6 million annually, reducing monthly trash fees $6 from the current $18.70. However, curbside service will be provided if needed for low-income elderly and handicapped residents for $9.35, Cathey said.