We’ve all seen them — the purple dumpsters decorating the streets of Charleston with the colorful, apologetically misspelled Trash Gurl logo scrawled across the side. But, maybe the most eye-catching parts of these 5400-pound steel containers are the sayings that adorn each one. Quips like, “If you do a job well, you’ll get stuck with it,” or “I am breathing. That’s about it for today’s productivity.”
If you drive around Charleston on any given day, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll pass by one — and you’ll notice. How often do you actually notice a dumpster by the side of the road?
“That’s the whole point,” said Trash Gurl owner and operator Melissa Polutta, 40, “not to be like everybody else. Waste management companies want their containers to be plain and unseen, and I want to say, ‘Hey, look at me!’ ”
Polutta’s approach to making trash look “pretty” really works. She said people are constantly posting and tagging photos posing in front of the Trash Gurl dumpsters — even entire wedding parties.
“To me, you want to be seen,” she said. “That way, you know that it’s clean, it’s well-kept and you know that construction’s going, so you can be more aware.”
But when Trash Gurl first started, many people didn’t think Polutta was serious. “I truly believe that people did not think it was a real company at first,” she explained. “But once they started seeing the fleets on the road more often, people accepted it.”
When Polutta started Trash Gurl in 2009 with the help of her husband Jeff, the company was just the two of them, one truck and 10 cans. Now, she claims Trash Gurl is the largest locally owned waste management company in Charleston.
“Being a female-owned business was tough at first,” she explained. “It’s a high-stress job and very demanding. I think it was hard for some people to grasp that a woman could have as much drive into it. Most females in the industry are in the corporate scene or sales. They’re not actually doing the dirty work. I guess we made it a double whammy by picking Trash Gurl. And then, we spelled it wrong,” she said with a laugh.
Jeff insisted that Trash Gurl was the right name, although Polutta thought her grandma would be mortified if she ever heard it.
“Trash girl” was actually something Polutta used to hear chirped over her Nextel radio. “When I would start work at 3 a.m., my radio would start going, ‘Hey trash girl, where’s my can?’ Because a lot of people didn’t know who I was, they just knew, ‘Oh that girl’s going to bring me a dumpster.’ ”
Polutta started off in the waste management business almost by accident. She worked in landscaping and the tanning-salon business before a friend in the waste-management industry approached her with the offer of a part-time sales position. As a single mom looking for insurance at the time, she was willing to learn about a new industry.
“I had no idea I was going to get into the trash business,” she said. “But after I took that part-time gig, I ended up loving it. It was like my calling. I couldn’t believe it.”
Because Polutta was so passionate about the industry, she wanted to branch out from sales and learn more about how the business was run. Her curiosity paid off when the business she worked for went under, and Jeff encouraged her to start her own company.
“It was just supposed to be a hobby, but once we started, business erupted. We still don’t have any sales people to this day,” she said. “Our sales are based off of our customer service, logo and word-of-mouth.”
After 12 years, the business has grown to about 48 employees, more than 25 fully serviced trucks with roll-off commercials dumpers, small commercial cans and portalet rentals.
“I don’t always throw it out there that I’m a woman-owned business because I want to get it fair and square. That’s my big thing, but I do want everyone to know that girls can do whatever the heck they want, just as much as a guy can do my job.”
Most waste management companies in the area are actually owned by larger corporations or publicly traded companies, though there are a few other local businesses in town.
Corporate-owned waste management companies try to give the appearance of being “local.” Online listings are classified as “local” and include a local area code, but the companies are actually based in New York or California and use brokers to subcontract work.
At Trash Gurl, Polutta tries to offer a more personalized experience, and she stays hyper-involved in the business. She prefers to do all her own dispatching, which requires showing up to work at 3 a.m. every day. “I do my own dispatching because I want to see my drivers in the morning before they leave and tell them to have a good day and be safe,” she said. “Why not? I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can.”
Not only does she do her own dispatching, she does it the old-fashioned way — with a giant white board. Walking into her new office in Moncks Corner, the first thing you’ll notice is a floor-to-ceiling array of dry erase boards that take up an entire wall. Polutta said using this method over a computer system allows her to be more involved with the job site.
Polutta grew up on Remount Road and attended North Charleston High before moving to Goose Creek about 13 years ago, so her local knowledge gives her a slight edge with firsthand understanding of Charleston’s traffic and shortcuts to job sites.
It’s clear from the moment you meet Polutta that her business is truly her passion. Her phone is constantly buzzing, and she’s there to answer on the first ring — already aware of which client she’s talking to or which driver she needs to direct. But with so much focus on her work, she doesn’t save much time for her social life. Luckily, it’s a family affair at Trash Gurl. Polutta’s mom works customer service across the hall. Her stepdaughter Sydney is the main biller a few offices down. And her son Stiles, who just turned 18, recently took over dispatching and running the portable toilet part of the business.
Her husband Jeff is usually tinkering around with the equipment, working a demo job, checking in on his own heating and air business or tending to the family’s mini farm. But, Jeff may have the most important job at the company: creating the sayings that are painted on the dumpsters.
The idea first came to Jeff when he cracked open a fortune cookie after finishing lunch at a local Chinese food restaurant one afternoon.
“At first, I was like, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’ But, everyone loves them. Jeff will just sit down and come up with lists of sayings,” says Polutta.
To add to the playfulness of the dumpsters’ appearance, the company started adding Polutta’s Bitmoji, a themed cartoon version of herself, to the dumpsters. “Sometimes, people will call in or employees will have an idea for the sayings, and Jeff will match it up with my Bitmoji.” If one thing’s for certain, the family likes to have fun with their customers. For one church client, the company added a graphic of Polutta praying along with a quirky saying.
“I love when people call me and tell me that seeing the dumpsters made their day. It just fuels us to keep coming up with new ones.”
After moving to their larger location in Moncks Corner last June, the company is considering where to go next. Offering recycling services is on the list of possibilities, but Polutta doesn’t want to grow too big too fast. And, the company is still getting back to normal after the pandemic year.
Their business took an initial hit with big events canceling toilet rentals and dumpster orders. But, business quickly picked back up as people were stuck at home and interested in taking on home improvement projects. Polutta’s son said March and April 2020 saw their highest numbers of rentals for the entire year.
Though business itself hasn’t slowed much for Trash Gurl, Polutta made the decision to temporarily cut prices to keep clients and help pay her drivers. Many of the companies she works with were struggling due to business closures, some went under all together.
“The last thing they want to worry about is paying me,” she said, talking about her customers during the pandemic. “Health is more important. If I can help them get through and stay open, that’s my goal. Some people have had to put freezes on their accounts. I tell them, no problem. Just keep the can out there and when you open back up, we’ll be there to empty it.”
That is exactly the type of service and sense of community that Polutta’s customers have come to know and love her for. Someone who’s tough, driven, passionate, caring — and someone who “makes trash look gud.”