Recycling Jobs Now Even Dirtier and More Dangerous

recycling, recycling workers, waste diversion, separating waste, Leon Kaye, commingled recycling, single stream recycling, sanitation, Cuentame, green jobs
On their way to a dirty and dangerous job.

Recycling has long been the low-hanging fruit of sustainability in both neighborhoods and offices. More municipalities and office buildings have recycling programs and for the consumer, pitching those cereal boxes, bottles and cans are even easier than before. Single-stream or “commingled” recycling programs make it even easier for us: the days of separate and clunky bins of paper, metal and glass are no longer the norm. If you are a recycling fiend like me, the amount of garbage you pitch on a weekly basis probably fills an average sized plastic bag from the local supermarket. Advocates for green jobs tout recycling as a job opportunity for those seeking employment.

But while recycling is easy for consumers, the job of those who sort those materials at a site far away from our homes and offices is dangerous, dirty and often pays a marginal wage. More cities allow just about everything to be plunked in the recycling bin, from Tetra-Pak boxes to CFL bulbs to food scraps. But someone has to separate all those items, and if you have those acid reflex moments when you haul your cans away or walk up to your apartment’s dumpster once a week, imagine what it is like for a recycling worker day in and day out.

Last year, a Forbes article quoted sanitation and recycling workers as having the 7th most dangerous job in the country, with 25 deaths per 100,000 workers. Jean Tepperman’s article in the East Bay Express explains the long-term harm that recycling workers endure due to several factors. Recycling workers in Oakland, no matter how good their protective gear is, still breathe in toxins and risk contamination if they suffer a cut on the job.

It would be more comforting to assume that machines simply shake and sort through all this garbage, but despite the automation at recycling centers, workers still often have to sift through garbage by hand. And in Oakland, recycling workers’ jobs are about to get worse as the city has mandated that they dig through garbage to salvage food waste for compost. As Tepperman points out, such a task makes the job even tougher for Oakland’s recycling workers, who at the city’s Davis Street plant earn $12.65 an hour, a salary that makes it almost impossible to live and survive in the Bay Area. In Southern California, organizations including Don’t Waste LA have exposed the conditions to which recycling workers are subjected. Contact with rotten food, syringes and chemicals subject workers to a job that is one of the most dangerous in California.

Part of this problem is the inconsistency that governs the recycling industry. Residents of single family homes and small apartment buildings are generally serviced by municipal workers, who may (or may not) have more protections on the job. Large residential complexes and businesses often contract out waste services to private companies, and therein lies the core of the problem for recycling workers who end up with little training in a dangerous and noxious job. The result is simmering anger and frustration, as summed up in this video produced by the non-profit Cuentame.

Pitching empty bottles and newspapers into the recycling bin makes us feel good because it requires little effort and is an easy way to say we are living sustainably and responsibly. But the burden of waste diversion falls on workers who frequently struggle with low wages and threats to their health. The solutions are complicated and, for consumers and businesses, are often viewed as inconvenient.

Recycling is a remunerative industry more than ever before, but everyone should have a role in tackling the problems of recycling and waste. More companies, such as those in the beverage industry, could take greater responsibility for their single-use containers. Retailers can be more aggressive in promoting the recycling of a bevy of materials from batteries to CFLs. Property management companies and restaurants should also be more proactive about food waste. Separating waste may require an extra step on our behalf, but “being green” should not just be about resources–we should all take a moment and think about the people that actually have to confront this grueling and ghastly work.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Leon Kaye.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

8 responses

  1. And for those who have dumpsters and are serviced by a company that does not use any recycling bins, know that all of your recycled materials — which can only be comingled with trash — are sorted by hand at a plant. This is what both Athens and Waste Management have told me.

  2. This article is misleading and inaccurate. Recycling is a strong job creator, and the majority of the jobs are not dirty or dangerous. These days, most of the sorting of mixed municipal recyclables is automated. The real job creation comes when the materials leave the material recycling facility (MRF) and go on to further processing and manufacturing into new products. The jobs in these facilities are “green collar” jobs with decent wages and paths to upward mobility — machine operators, quality control technicians, forklift operators, etc. To paint the entire industry as dirty and dangerous is worse than disingenuous, It is damaging to an industry that employs millions while improving the environment, and has the potential to employ even more. Next time, do the research before you publish.

    1. Unfortunately, because the materials are “commingled,” they’re sent to countries with low wages to be sorted and made into new products which are shipped back to us. The “green collar” jobs are being created in those countries, NOT the US.

      1. That’s not entirely true. Most “comingled” materials are sorted in domestic facilities. While some products (low quality paper, for example) may get sent to china and come back as the cardboard boxes our walmart products are delivered in, others (like PET plastic) are more likely to get recycled domestically into fiber for carpets and clothing, strapping, or other products that would otherwise be made from virgin plastic. It’s just not so black and white.

  3. Caring about workers is a great start to a meaningful conversation on this topic. Though he seems to have some assumptions that aren’t correct or that dont apply to a broad number of situations, it is refreshing that the author is thinking about the working conditions affecting the people who manage his discards. Too few do.

  4. 12.65ph is hard to live off of? Dear god, I’d love for a wage like that in Florida. Most I ever made was 8.55ph. Instead of bitching that 12.65 ph is hard to live on, why dont you bitch about the pointless regulation, debt, and inflation that is causing the destruction of our currency caused by the republicrats (both parties) and the federal reserve? If they dollar was stronger things would be a crap ton easier to accomplish.

  5. To RAD recycler.
    I *am* in this industry and while I don’t like dramatizations to draw readership, the health impacts on workers in a MRF (Material Recovery Facility) are real. You know, with Houston’s recent recognition for going “All-in-One”, which goes beyond ‘single stream’ recycling to “all waste items, commingled,” I am disgusted by a number of things: a) When you eliminate ‘source separation’ you absolve consumers of responsibility for the value of their waste. You are simply enabling ‘consumer culture’ in the attempt to reduce municipal collection costs, ultimately thrusting health and environmental impacts into the column of “externalized costs.” b) Those ‘externalized costs’ mean that the damage to the materials as marketable commodities is significant ~~ you severely diminish your paper/fiber marketability, the organics can _never_ be reintroduced to the food chain, and you wind up with glass in everything! In fact, typical single stream MRFs in the US (hosting only recyclables, not trash) today cannot market their glass once it comes out of the back of the facility. As you may know, paper, metal and plastic are removed first… and glass flows out among all the other undesirables. And again, in a typical (clean?) MRF, you’ve still got a rotten job when you’re a sorter leaning over the conveyor line, and that’s WITH most of the dangerous stuff removed! Unless your community insists on other avenues for disposal, these unfortunate employees are exposed to needles (disease transmission), fluorescent lamps (mercury exposure), food, tissues, diapers (think: pathogens!). No question waste diversion is necessary, and recycling is a critical part of the reverse logistics to the manufacturing sector to avoid unnecessary mineral/resource extractions. But dumbing down recycling to single stream, or worse ‘Dirty MRF’ models (which accept recyclables commingled with trash) shows no respect for human/social/environmental accountability.

    1. CLARIFICATION: “[On the other hand, with cities like Houston attempting to ‘innovate’ with a ‘Dirty MRF’ (placing all waste/recycling together)] …Unless your community insists on other avenues for disposal…”

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