Recently a hand grenade came down the conveyor belt. The mummified human head was also a bit of a shock. Needles, dead animals, glass shards, acids, and fumes are pretty common. Recycle workers in Alameda County, in the San Francisco Bay Area, face these dangers and more every day on the job.
Many cities now rely on a system of commingled recyclables, where residents and customers place all their recyclable materials in one bin or bag. While this system saves on collection and transportation costs, it is a nightmare to sort. There are many mechanical systems for sorting the materials, but when it comes down to it, human hands are needed to really get the job done.
Workers stand near conveyor belts that zip the unsorted materials along. Each person is responsible to pull out this or that designated material as it passes. Reaching for a piece of number six plastic while avoiding a hidden razor blade or shard of glass is not an easy job.
The job can be deadly. Recycle workers still remember their friend and coworker, Eva Macias, who died in 2012 at the Waste Management Davis Street recycling plant. She was directing traffic at the plant’s public drop-off zone and was run over by a bulldozer. Cal-OSHA investigators say the incident was caused by the company’s failure to follow safety laws and fined Waste Management more than $50,000. The company has refused to pay the fines and is appealing.
Despite all these hazards, Alameda County recycle workers are making less than $12 an hour. Meanwhile, workers with the identical job across the bay in San Jose, are paid nearly twice as much for the same job at the same company. Customer’s rates in the two counties are also largely on par.
Phil and I had the opportunity to sit in on a union meeting of Alameda County recycle workers. More than fifty workers came in on a Sunday, even though many of them work two jobs, and time off is precious. Most spoke only Spanish and two full-time translators were present; we stuck to our ear pieces. The meeting began with each member present standing up and saying who they worked for and how long. Many had ten or twenty years experience and it was clear that they were proud of their work.
As the meeting went on, the members expressed a lot of frustration; low pay and hazardous conditions were made all the more depressing by the stark difference in wages with their counterparts across the Bay.
Waste disposal and recycling are lucrative industries, posting revenues of at least $410 billion a year, globally. As one of the workers at the meeting said, “We’ve got environmental standards, but we haven’t yet got social standards.” Low pay characterizes the industry, with wages falling between eight and seventeen dollars an hour. It’s a tough job that deserves respect.
Think about the sorters whenever you fill your recycle bin. Washing out jugs and bottles (especially milk) can drastically reduce smells, taking the trouble to learn what materials your area actually accepts allows for better efficiency, and being aware that someone will have to touch what you toss in the bin hopefully will lead to less hazards for workers.