On the Job: James Stamps of Waste Management

photo by Eric Tadsen

“Is it true? Are you doing a story on James?” asks a middle-aged man on his bike at the Waste Management Fish Hatchery Road Recycling Center. “He’s the man!” the gentleman smiles, as he bikes off, promising to return later that day with recyclables.

It’s the Monday following UW’s Homecoming weekend, and James Stamps, the buy-back attendant and small-equipment manager for Waste Management, is anticipating a busy day. Tailgate parties over the weekend usually translates to a boon in aluminum cans, and on cue, vehicles start trickling in when the doors open at 8 a.m.

Stamps, 48, has worked at the center for 22 months, but has been an employee for Waste Management for almost 10 years. His supervisor, John Rickard, plant manager, would probably say Stamps has transformed the center since his arrival. “We’ve had more compliments on James than we’ve ever had,” Rickard said. “He’s added a new face to our company.”

Like clockwork, the Monday morning regulars file in. A Hmong couple with little command of the English language carry bag after bag of aluminum cans to the site. ‘They have a system and work in shifts,” said Rickard of the couple and their friends, “and you often see them coming from way down on Fish Hatchery Road.”

With poles stretched across their shoulders, the man and woman hoist two — sometimes three — bags each. They empty the bags into recycling barrels before returning to a nearby corner, where more overstuffed bags of cans seem to appear like magic.

Stamps, meanwhile, slides the barrels filled with cans onto the floor scale. Each barrel weighs 13 lbs. empty, which is deducted from the total weight. Two hours later, the couple’s contribution amounts to 24 barrels of cans totalling 2,000 pounds — less the barrel weight. They leave with a cash payout amounting to about 50 cents per pound.

“I don’t know where folks get the cans from,” Stamps says. “I don’t ask.”

But recently, he did question one delivery. Flags went up, he said, when a man showed up hoping to collect cash in exchange for construction scaffolding and some brand new electronic items. “Nobody recycles a brand new Sony flat-screen!” Stamps laughed. So he quietly alerted staff, then hopped on his forklift to appear preoccupied while the office contacted police. His instincts proved correct. The man was arrested on suspicion of theft.

On a more typical day, Stamps helps the public with their recycling efforts — from e-scrap (electronics), to metals, to corrugated cardboard and glass. He records the weight, the grade of the metals, and the number of barrels, if applicable. If the recyclable is on the “buy-back” list, such as aluminum cans or other metals, customers turn his hand-written receipts in at the office for immediate payment. Other items require customers to pay a fee.

Barrel by barrel, Stamps empties cans into a large digester, of sorts, which compacts them into 20-pound blocks that he then loads onto pallets. It seems like a kind of game, a challenge to keep the beast fed … Aside from the sour smells of old liquids, the space is remarkably clean and organized. “James has raised this plant to another level,” said Rickard. “He’s always cleaning and maintaining.”

It shows. This is a pleasant place, something one might not expect from a recycling center. Most customers arriving on this sunny morning seem to know Stamps by his first name, and he’d have it no other way.

Customer service is the key, he explains, with the fervor of a CEO. “You never know who’s coming through the door. You can’t pick or choose who you’ll greet. I don’t care who they are. We see many homeless people here, too. They’re all people to me.”

That can-do attitude keeps not only the recycling customers happy, but his superiors as well. Rickard suggests it’s also helped the bottom line, saying he believes some customers return just because of Stamps. “As a manager, you don’t always realize what you’re missing until you get all the [complimentary calls]. At some point, you just say, ‘Wow!'”

Stamps moved to Madison 18 years ago from Chicago. He said he was finding “no positivity” there, and moved here to be closer to family. “I didn’t want my kids to grow up in Chicago.” Armed with a resume that included past jobs with Zenith and UPS, Stamps was hired by Waste Management in June of 1999. He worked at the Badger Road location as a sorter on a recyclables line, and eventually earned a leadership role overseeing a handful of workers. But Rickard recognized that Stamps’ could be better utilized at the front end of the operation, as the company’s public persona. “We wanted him here because he has such a neat personality.”

Back at the site, a pickup truck arrives, and a man steps out and begins unloading several large bags of cans. His name, we learn, is John, a metal collector from the east side. Today’s haul, John explains, comes from his resourceful eight-year old son, Jayden, a young entrepreneur who decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and begin recycling aluminum cans from around his neighborhood and at Breese Stevens field.

Between recycling and lawn duties, his father reports Jayden’s savings account has surpassed $1,500. This day’s donation just tacked on another $35.

“Jayden knows that if he wants an $80 X-Box, I’m not buying it for him. I learned that from my mom, and he’s learning it from me,” John says. The youngster also collects and recycles electrical cords, which the center collects for the copper inside. “[Recycling] keeps him out of trouble.”

It also keeps Stamps happy. “I like the physical work,” he says, “and the people. There are a lot of regulars.”

His genuine enthusiasm is infectious. “I take every day as a glorious day. It’s just a blessing to be here and have a job.”

His best days, he says, are when Rickard treats the 11-member staff to an occasional group lunch. “We all sit around the table and chat. It reminds me of a family tradition, just like Thanksgiving,” he smiles.

His worst days come around this time of year, when bees become bothersome. “They are very harassing,” he said, swatting them away from the empty cans. A month earlier, one crawled into his soda and stung his lip.

Though Stamps was reluctant to share his exact wage, Rickard said someone in his position earns between $12 and $17 an hour. He works Monday through Fridays, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and every other Saturday, resulting in some overtime pay. He’d like to continue to gain more skills and “become more universal” to the operation. Then he pauses … “but I’m also very happy here.”

Crushing cans is just a portion of Stamps’ responsibilities. This winter, when things slow down, he also will be trained in the back warehouse, where mountains upon mountains of recyclables get loaded on trucks destined for other mills and recycling facilities. He looks forward to that.

“James is a special individual,” said Rickard. “There are people in the world that are afraid to work, and some who love it. That’s the difference.”

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