How Working in A Rubbish Dump Can Be A Great Job
Jeremy scored his job as 9/10 (with ten being the most fantastic job imaginable).
The rubbish dump is located on about 15 acres of land, several kilometres from a holiday town. Jeremy is the tip attendee. Immediately we get out the car, our noses are hit by the stench of something awful, which we later discover to be fish offal. And yet, just ten minutes later, as we sit in his office on recycled sofa chairs, Jeremy announces that his job as a tip attendant is “the best job ever”.
But how can this be? Working with garbage is a classic example of what scholars have called ‘dirty work’, or work that is physically, socially, or morally tainted. In the case of garbage, the taint is physical because of the need to handle noxious materials that are often seen as disgusting. And yet Jeremy scores his job as a “nine out of ten” (with ten being the most fantastic job imaginable). What explains this?
The answer lies partly in work design....
First, the job has a relaxed pace with considerable freedom, especially compared to Jeremy’s previously stressful and time-pressured work as a plumber. Certainty, there can be busy days in the tip during the summer holidays, with as many as 30 cars coming in to drop off and sort their rubbish. But there are often quiet days in the winter, with just two to three cars coming to the tip, giving Jeremy some time to do exercise, read, make things, or chat with customers (“this place is a social hub”).
Second, by enhancing the recycling of waste, the job provides Jeremy with the chance to make a positive difference. As we walked around the site, Jeremy explained the different piles of materials for recycling. Things that people might want to re-use, such as in-tact tables and chairs, were pulled apart from the piles and clearly displayed in an effort to tempt people to take them home. Indeed, just as we packed up to leave, two teenage boys arrived to try out the discarded bikes.
A local customer who has been going to the rubbish tip for many years observed how much the tip has improved in recent years: “It used to be revolting – all the rubbish just in one big pit with plastic and other stuff getting blown into the nearby bush. Its 100% better now”.
Third, the job is one in which Jeremy has had sufficient autonomy to craft his work to suit him. He described his excitement when someone brings in “good rubbish” like metal and wood, which he can sort through to extract materials for his home-building, or indeed, to create a more interesting and comfortable work place. Jeremy's office (a tin shed) is furnished with interesting reclaims from the tip, such as comfortable sofas for visitors, an aeroplane sculpture made from beer cans, and exercise equipment for quiet times.
And outside the shed, amongst the trees (and far from the fish offal bin), Jeremy has recycled thrown-away materials to create a beautiful space in which shells dangle between branches, beer bottle lids snake their way up tree trunks, and a punching bag rocks in the breeze. There is even a tip rooster which was dropped off as rubbish by someone, but that – with Jeremy’s blessing - has made the tip its home.
All in all, by the time we leave, we agree with Jeremy: he has a well-designed job that is a perfect fit for him. Just as important, Jeremy’s work delivers great value for all of us - with 20,000 plastic bottles being purchased around the world every second - effective waste recycling is a vital issue for the future of our planet.
A little more..
Will this job ever be carried out by a robot?
“No”, says Jeremy. He explained that it is a unique job, a job involving person skills, getting the right balance between being friendly and sociable, but also knowing how to keep out of people’s business. We think he is right. With no computer in sight, and Jeremy readily admitting he “has never sent an email in his life, wouldn’t even know how”, this job seems safe from a technological takeover for some time to come.
Jeremy’s art work has caused him grief.
A few years previously, some natural art studios had emerged along some of the local paths near the holiday town, with beautiful shell-covered wish-makers and other glorious works. I took international visitors to see not just the art, but the Australian-like anarchy of the display. Jeremy was the designer, I discovered, so when the art has mysteriously disappeared this year, I wanted to know why. Jeremy explained how it had “just disappeared” one winter’s night – that some person or people had stolen it, for what purpose, with what motive, he had no idea. This theft was devastating for Jeremy, and he hasn’t made any major art since. Before we left, he suggested that he ‘might get back into it’. We certainly hope so.
Behind the scenes
 Ashforth, B. E., & Kreiner, G. E. (1999). “How can you do it?”: Dirty work and the challenge of constructing a positive identity. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 413-434.
 Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179-201.