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 GreenGoPost.com. 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.