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Saul Lopez has a master's touch when it comes to operating his Salt Lake County recycling truck.

He's super safety conscious, too. And he's thorough.

"Saul's been known to get out of the truck on windy days to chase down [scattered] recycled materials from cans that have blown over to make sure he leaves neighborhoods clean," County Sanitation Division Director Pam Roberts said recently in introducing Lopez to the County Council after he won a national award for sanitation drivers.

Roberts was especially proud, she added, when Lopez gave his acceptance speech at the National Solid Wastes Management Association's annual convention in Las Vegas.

"Out of the 10 drivers who won in respective categories [Lopez was tops among public-sector workers], Saul was the only one who mentioned the customers and how he does what he does because of them," Roberts said, adding that Lopez was selected from among 644 nominees nationwide.

County Council members rose in unison to give Lopez a standing ovation, appreciative of efforts that keep residents satisfied with the services they receive.

"You do a great job for the residents you serve," Council Chairman David Wilde said.

"Thank you, guys, for having the time for us," responded Lopez, a 31-year-old father of two from Salt Lake City. "I'm humbled and speechless being here."

Those comments are representative of Lopez's approach to his job during the past five years, said Ryan Dyer, Lopez's boss as the county's recycling and area cleanup programs manager.

"Saul's soft-spoken, even-keeled and his work ethic is just superb," Dyer said, noting that Lopez often finishes his routes faster than less-experienced drivers, then swings into their areas to help wrap up the collections.

On occasion, Dyer has assigned newer drivers to ride with Lopez so they learn a few veteran tricks about driving a 46,000-pound truck (loaded) 350 miles a week on sometimes hectic neighborhood streets, while manipulating a joy stick to snatch, lift and empty 1,000 to 1,500 blue recycling cans daily.

"They'll come back and say, 'Saul is a machine.' I can't pinpoint exactly what it is," Dyer said, "but some people just fit [in] what they're doing. It's where they're supposed to be. It's like race car drivers. Why do some just have that feel so they drive faster than others?"

Lopez went to work for the county five years ago, preferring the stability of driving a recycling truck to his previous job installing underground cables in all areas of the state.

"I'd heard the county had a good safety program and I liked that," he added. "Like they say, it pays to be safe."

Since then, Lopez has twice been named the division's employee of the year, received two exceptional customer-service awards and, in 2011, was made a team leader overseeing a half dozen drivers.

"I just try to be good at every angle of the job," he said Friday, while taking a break from unloading recycling cans in Kearns. "I always want to do more than I can."

His workday starts at 6:30 a.m. each weekday at the County Sanitation Division fleet center in Midvale. He hands out daily assignments to his team, inspects his truck, then hits the road for six to eight hours, making a couple of trips to disposal stations to unload collected waste.

Through all of this, Lopez has a 100 percent safety record, something he credits to a fastidious devotion to checking all four mirrors on his big rig.

"You have to be careful," he said. "There are mailboxes, trees, cars, kids to watch out for. Lots of things could happen when you're picking up cans."

Even winning awards.

mikeg@sltrib.comTwitter: @sltribmikeg —

Managing waste

National "Driver of the Year" honoree Saul Lopez is one of four dozen Salt Lake County Sanitation Division drivers who empty blue recycling and black garbage cans from about 80,000 homes weekly in the unincorporated county, Taylorsville, Holladay, Herriman, Cottonwood Heights and parts of Murray.