I just can't get it out of my mind: Sounds of the familiar Clip-Clop rounding the bend as the garbage folks approach in a wagon pulled by their friendly, elegant steeds. Just the sound of it makes my whole life seem timeless, part of the long wind of humanity that will continue to blow after I'm gone. No wonder the Amish are Amish.
Turns out there are plenty of horses right here in Northwest Indiana who could do the job. I'm not talking about your Friend Flicka. You need draft horses for this kind of work: big, slow guys who've never run a race in their lives. They pull heavy stuff.
I asked a couple of draft horse aficionados what they thought of the garbage pick-up scheme. "I think it's a great idea," said Pam Worthington, current treasurer of the LaPorte County Draft Horse Association. "It's quiet, it's green, it's fuel efficient."
Dan Hagenow, of LaPorte, who was president of the draft horse group for the past four years, liked the idea, too. "You know draft horses are creatures of habit," he said, as he turned the notion around in his head. "After you train them what to do, they could probably run the route on their own".
Hageow was warming to the idea. "You'd need two persons," he continued, "one to pick up, and one to drive. Costs about $4,000 a year to feed an animal, so that'd be $8,000—and of course the collectors' fees. But those horses go strong for about 15 years. I don't think the trucks last that long."
"And," he added. "Trucks don't reproduce."
Little towns in France are all over idea of horses picking up garbage. The annual congress of work horses was recently held in the Calvedos region of France. I suggested to my editor that the paper might want to send me there so I could really do this story in depth. She graciously declined.
But you know who'll be there? More than 60 towns in France have reverted to (or maintained) horse-drawn garbage pick up. Bet their mayors and wagon drivers will show up, as well as horse breeders, wagoneers, recycle fanatics, proud French Garbage Collectors wearing berets.
I asked my friend, Kathleen, who has been living in France for more than ten years, how it was working out. She lives just north of Montpellier near one of the towns mentioned by "The Guardian" newspaper when they were checking it out.
"As you well know, France is one huge museum so an awful lot of the interest in this is tourist-related. The horses make little noise and they and their human colleagues are great tools for the local populace in terms of teaching people how to sort their trash, which sacks to use for what, etc. It looks like the issue of saving a particular race of horses also comes into play. In Vermont, they're using Percherons to do the job. And Ireland has a huge workhorse lobby/industry group."
Kathleen continued to say that one company, Veolia, is more serious than other firms, as they had a lightweight gurney specially designed and built so that the horses could pull more garbage with less effort. "Their studies showed that horses picking up garbage move faster than trucks, as they apparently just keep plodding along as the bags are thrown into the back of the gurney, whereas the trucks are stopping and starting in a rhythm that is eventually slower than the horse. The horses are also able to get to places difficult for the big trucks."
Jean Baptiste, another mayor, says it's working out great. "You can't turn a waste collection vehicle around here. We used to block streets to traffic and keep waste in open skips." He sold off a dustbin lorry and acquired two Breton carthorses instead. Asked whether the changes are saving money, he says: "It's too early. But money isn't the only reason. The exhaust smells have gone, the noise has gone, and instead we have the clip-clop of horses' hooves."
Other towns make the money-saving case. The mayor of Saint Prix, is certain the novelty of the horses has increased recycling rates and saving money.
The horse-drawn garbage carts in Montevideo, Uruguay, are a slightly different matter. Hundreds of horse-drawn carts compete with cars in this bustling city. These aren't paid professional draft horses or garbage collectors, however. These very poor people scavenge through the garbage for cans, bottles, cardboard—anything they can sell. There are regular accidents involving the horse carts (often with very young drivers) and automobiles. But whenever the government tries to crack down, there are huge demonstrations.
TRAFFIC: Around here, we don't have much, but the well-trained horses that pull carriages in Chicago and New York get along with cars.
ICY ROADS: Horses wear special shoes to walk on pavement. They have even more special shoes that give them extra traction on ice and snow.
MANURE: Check out "Bun-Bag," a specially designed "diaper" for horses that catches as catch can, leaving streets as clean as before the horses passed by.
INERTIA: Cases will always be made that we should continue doing things the way we always did.
Recently The Times ran a terrific series about our garbage and where it goes. Looks like we have plenty of landfill space here in Northwest Indiana. I'm not getting into the nuts and bolts of how our garbage systems work. I'm more concerned about what garbage looks and sounds like as it's going away. We are a society that doesn't like to think about waste. O.K. But for a minute, think about all those beautiful draft horses—Belgians, Percherons, Clydesdales—with nothing to do but pull logs or take little kids for hay rides. What a waste. Put those horses to work.
"I was out driving (the horses)," Hagenow continued, "with my 16-year old son. "You have to keep them in practice, and I just love being around them. We're out for a Sunday afternoon drive in the country. An old car was driving toward us. About a 1955, I think. My son looked at me and smiled, "Our model's older," he said.