A photo-illustration of a child looking at a garbage truck
Hooray! It's a garbage truck! Liv Oeian/Shutterstock/The Atlantic

For some kids, the weekly trash pickup is a must-see spectacle. Parents, children, waste-management professionals, and experts on childhood all offer theories as to why.

For Ryan Rucker, a dad in Vacaville, California, the weekly summons comes on Wednesday mornings, usually around seven. For Rosanne Sweeting on Grand Bahama island, in the Bahamas, it’s twice a week—Mondays and Thursdays, anytime from 6 to 8:30 a.m.—and for Whitney Schlander in Scottsdale, Arizona, it’s every Tuesday morning at half-past seven.

At these times, the quiet of the morning is broken by the beep beep beeping of an approaching garbage truck—and broken further when their kids start hollering, begging to be escorted outside to wave or just watch in awe as the truck collects and majestically hauls away the household trash. Rucker’s daughter Raegan, 3, takes her stuffed animals outside with her to watch the pickup. Cassidy Sweeting, 4, enlists her mom’s help to deliver granola bars and water bottles to the three trash collectors. Finn Schlander, 3, invited the neighborhood garbage-truck driver to his birthday party. (Ultimately, he was unable to attend, but the party had garbage-truck decorations nonetheless.)

For decades, children have been fascinated by the garbage-collection vehicles that visit their home (as a kid, Finn’s dad wanted to grow up to be a garbage-truck driver himself, according to Finn’s mom), and their widespread fascination has been commemorated in a surprising variety of ways. The nationwide waste-disposal company Waste Management, for example, sells a branded WM garbage-truck toy on its online shop, and a representative for Waste Management told me that the company frequently receives requests from customers for things such as costumes and party kits for kids. Some city governments and waste-disposal companies have released safety guidelines for parents whose kids are especially curious about their garbage trucks. (“Wave from your window or doorway, keeping at least 20 feet of safe distance. Our drivers will wave back if they see you!”) Meanwhile, the children’s-web-series host Blippi, who has some 6.5 million YouTube subscribers, wrote a life-ruiningly catchy song about garbage trucks (“Some are blue, some are brown, and some are green / And wouldn’t you know it, there are some that can pick up recycling!”) that has been listened to a staggering 31.8 million times as of this writing.

I, too, had a more-than-passing interest in the garbage truck as a kid; with palpable residual excitement, I can remember peeking through the window shutters of my parents’ front room to watch the vaguely menacing robotic arm jut out, snatch our garbage can, and dangle the can upside down over its back while the trash tumbled out. Why generations of kids have been so transfixed by the trash pickup, though, remains something of a mystery. So I asked parents, kids, child-development experts, waste-management professionals, and even the creator of a kids’ show about an anthropomorphized garbage truck for their insights. Together, we made our way—more aptly, lurched and rumbled our way—toward a unifying theory of why kids are so wild about garbage trucks.

***

The garbage truck I remember watching out our window as a child—big lumbering hulk, single hungry grabber claw—is known in the waste-management industry as an “automated side loader.” (When I excitedly mentioned to Whitney Schlander that the automated side loader was introduced 50 years ago on the streets of Scottsdale, I discovered this was old news to her and Finn: “We went to the trash-transfer facility last year. Of course,” she said with a laugh. “They have the original one.”) Other varieties in the United States have automated forks on their front to pick up larger trash receptacles such as Dumpsters, while still others depend on human workers to manually pick up, empty, and replace the garbage cans.

When I asked Sheila Williams Ridge, who teaches early-childhood education at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, for any insights she could give me on why kids love garbage trucks so much, she thought of her own daughter, now 21. When her daughter was little, Williams Ridge remembered, the weekly arrival of the garbage truck was both dazzling and, in a way, reassuring.

“Humans have always thrived with routine,” she told me. “But children, their memories aren’t long enough. Sometimes, when we’re getting our 3-year-olds dressed for winter, they’re like, ‘I can’t do it!’ And we’re like, ‘You’ve put on snow pants before. You’ve put on boots.’ But for them, it’s so long ago. They don’t remember snow from when they’re 2; it’s new again for them.” So having something happen every week at the same time—and especially something that “seems a little bit magical”—can boost kids’ sense of familiarity with the world, not to mention give them something to look forward to.

Plus, what the truck is actually doing when it arrives has an air of the forbidden. Despite the fact that kids are frequently discouraged from making messes at home or at school (or perhaps because of that fact), “children love dumping things. They just do,” Williams Ridge said. “So the fact that a truck is coming to do this on purpose, and everyone is happy about it? It’s like, ‘Yes! This is my dream! I just want to dump stuff out, and you let this person do it!’” (The same goes for being noisy: “I think that’s the other thing with a lot of big trucks, and with police cars, fire trucks, snowplows,” she added. “They’re loud, and no one’s complaining about it.”)

Next I turned to Guy Toubes, the creator of the animated Amazon children’s series The Stinky & Dirty Show, whose eponymous protagonists are a backhoe loader (Dirty) and a garbage truck (Stinky). I reasoned that he surely must have some insights into what makes garbage trucks so fascinating.

He did. For starters, “kids think smelly stuff is really funny,” Toubes told me. There’s a sort of naughty appeal to talking about gross stuff and calling things “stinky,” he said, and in the run-up to the premiere of The Stinky & Dirty Show, he saw it in action: Two little girls in a focus group cracked up every time a character on the show said the name “Stinky.” “They just kept saying the word over and over again,” he remembered, “every time.”

Toubes also noted that the particular movement patterns of vehicles such as garbage trucks and backhoes—and snowplows, fire trucks, street sweepers, and the like—are entirely unique. Even if a child is familiar with how buses and cars move through space, the movements of a garbage truck’s grabber arm or a backhoe’s inward-curling shovel appendage can be mesmerizing because they’re so unusual. Add that to the fact that children frequently conceive of a vehicle as an enormous living creature—“It has lights and those look like eyes, so suddenly it’s got a face,” Toubes pointed out—and it’s almost no wonder that some kids look at garbage trucks like gigantic zoo animals visiting their home.

That said, Toubes and I immediately agreed that garbage trucks can also be pretty mesmerizing to adults because what they do is so visually unusual. Toubes is himself the father of a onetime garbage-truck aficionado: “My second son was sort of obsessed, and when we asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said a garbage truck,” he told me. “We were like, ‘You want to drive a garbage truck?’ And he was like, ‘No, I want to be the truck.’” And when his son ran to the picture window to watch the garbage pickup, “I’d go to the window and watch along with him,” Toubes remembered. “Like, Actually, that is interesting.”

***

At this point, I’d heard the experts’ theories. But I would be remiss not to consult the two foremost authorities—kids and garbage-truck drivers. So first I went to Rene Vesi, a Waste Management truck driver based near Portland, Oregon. Vesi’s friendship with a boy with autism was the subject of a local-news segment earlier this year.

I asked Vesi whether that was common, whether he was accustomed to having young friends and admirers. Garbage-truck enthusiasts are common enough that he considers “making kids happy” to be part of the job, he said, but he’d never take their enthusiasm for granted. “We have kids on almost every route. Moms hold babies at the door, toddlers wait at the window and sometimes a whole family will come out to watch and wave,” Vesi wrote to me in an email. “It makes you feel like a rock star.”

As for why those kids are so excited, Vesi largely agreed with Toubes. “They love the lights and all the moving parts,” he wrote. “For a toddler, it probably feels like a Transformer has come to visit.”

When I asked an actual child, however, why she loved garbage trucks so much, her answer surprised me. Was it the recurring excitement? The anticipation? The dumping? The gross-out factor, or perhaps the anthropomorphic factor? The fact that, as Toubes and I—and for that matter, pretty much every adult in this story—agreed, garbage trucks are objectively awesome, no matter how old you are?

No, Raegan Rucker told me. Her favorite part of the whole greeting-the-garbage-truck ritual is when a friendly, familiar face shows up at her house. She loves “walking outside with socks on,” pointing at the truck as it approaches, and “drinking milk outside,” she told me—sometimes with her stuffed animals alongside her, sometimes on the swing her parents installed out front pretty much expressly for the purpose of garbage-truck watching. But most of all, she loves waiting for the truck driver to stop and say hi.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

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