HAYWARD -- Under his bright green safety vest, Waste Management truck driver Duncan Macharia wears a button-down shirt.
He rarely needs to disembark from the high-tech cab of his massive green truck as it lumbers along Victory Drive, part of his pre-dawn route.
His new truck is a far cry from the first motorized ones, put into service in the United States in 1912. The cabs are clean and heated, and there is no lingering odor. And because the drivers no longer have to lug trash cans, their clothes stay clean.
Macharia turns his focus to a row of about a dozen carts as he searches for the green ones. One of three drivers who cover this route on Tuesdays, he is assigned to pick up green waste; the other two trucks take trash and recyclables.
The three trucks on his route are part of a fleet of 15 new compressed natural gas-powered vehicles that Waste Management rolled out this fall in the Oro Loma Sanitary District. Powered by converted methane gas extracted from garbage at the Altamont landfill, the CNG trucks run cleaner than older diesel ones, with almost no carbon emissions.
Macharia smiles as a resident, a sweatshirt tossed over his pajamas, dashes to the curb, adding a trash bin to a cluster already there.
"Most of the customers are nice, but some get so mad at us," Macharia said. "They place the cart late, and then they think you're the one who missed it."
The trucks, which cost $320,000 to $350,000 each,
"I can't tell when trucks are coming; before you could hear them coming down the street," said Mary Ann Davis, a Cherryland resident. "If I had forgotten to take my cart out, I would make a mad dash before the truck arrived. I can't hear them, but I like that they are quieter. And I'm trusting that they are better for the environment than the old trucks were."
Stopping his truck, Macharia flips a switch to turn on a side light, illuminating the carts so he can pick out the green one. He pushes a button, extending a mechanical arm that snags the green one and lifts it over the truck.
A camera atop the truck lets him sit and watch a video screen as yard clippings and food scraps fall into the hopper. The truck jostles from side to side as he moves the cart up and down to make sure it is empty. He then remotely returns the cart to the curb, never leaving the truck's cab.
"When I was learning, sometimes I would miss the cart, even drive past it and have to back up," he said. "Now I'm kind of precise."
Over the past 10 years, trash haulers have switched to the now-common residential three-cart system (trash, recycling and green waste) to comply with a state law that requires a 75 percent reduction in what goes to landfills by 2020. Alameda County has a higher goal of 90 percent.
Customers in the Oro Loma district, which covers San Lorenzo and parts of Hayward, San Leandro and Fairview, for the past three years have been encouraged to toss food scraps into the green bins. The bins at first held only yard clippings, but food scraps were added as cities and districts looked for ways to meet landfill diversion goals; food makes up about a third of the trash in Alameda County. All cities and districts in Alameda County now accept food scraps, as does most of central Contra Costa County.
"Pushing out three bins is not a hassle," said Cesar Flores, who lives in north Hayward. "We put fruit in the green bin, and it's cut down the garbage some. But I would like for the trucks to come at the same time each week, so we can figure out a good time to roll the carts out. We don't like to push them out the night before because people put stuff in them."
Shortly after 5 a.m. each day, 224 trucks line up and leave Waste Management's yard on 98th Avenue in Oakland, fanning out across Alameda County and into San Ramon. Of those, 41 run on compressed natural gas that is produced at Waste Management's liquefied natural gas plant at the Altamont Landfill in Livermore.
Macharia, 44, has driven a Waste Management truck for 10 years, but "waking up early is still hard." He gets up a little past 3 a.m. and drives an hour from Lathrop in the Central Valley to Oakland.
He nods to the few customers out in the early morning. Some wave, while one man crosses his arms and stares, as if he were making sure that Macharia emptied his cart.
The drivers map out their own routes, and Macharia makes a point of emptying carts around Longwood Elementary School early on Tuesdays. "I like to do the area around the school early before they come," he said. "It can get crowded later."
On some streets, only three or four green carts have been set out. Macharia said that, in general, green waste routes are faster in the winter, when fewer people are doing yard work. He has finished his route in as few as five to six hours, but it has taken him up to nine hours. "You drive the route, however long it takes," he said.
Macharia stops his truck, climbs down the two steps and grabs a pair of gloves from the side of the truck before pulling carts out from behind a parked car. Having to move carts or separate carts that are too close together slows him down. They need to be 3 feet apart so the mechanical arm has room to grab them.
"The people are learning and are getting better, though," he said.
Contact Rebecca Parr at 510-293-2473. Follow her at Twitter.com/rdparr1.