REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

A new report outlines the dangers posed to these workers, and the ways cities can make the job less hazardous.

My CityLab colleague Vicky Gan recently pointed out all the ways that we’ve been doing recycling wrong—necessary information given that this has consequences, particularly for recycling-plant workers. For instance, tossing plastic bags in recycling bins causes “a huge hassle” on the recycling plant’s end, writes Gan, because they often end up jamming up the machinery that sorts and processes the materials.

These plastic jam-ups create one of the top nine hazardous conditions faced by recycling workers, according to a new report from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and the Partnership for Working Families.  

Rotten foods, used hypodermic needles, toxic chemicals, dead animals, and broken glass are among the many refuse items listed in the report that workers at Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) have to hand-sort. These workers are exposed to these dangers in part because of our poor waste-disposal habits on the supply side. But cities also haven’t been doing the best job of regulating the recycling companies they employ. Reads the report:

As municipalities expand their recycling programs, they can and should use their power to hold industry accountable to high health and safety standards and outcomes. Because they contract with recycling companies to manage the municipal recycling stream, city governments create and shape local waste management and recycling markets in significant ways that can be leveraged to improve recycling worker health and safety.

A few headlines from the past few years gives us a sense of what these recycling worker injuries tend to look like:

St. Louis Co. man dies after getting caught in compactor” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 13, 2011

Northampton recycling plant worker injured on the job dies” —The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania) October 3, 2011  

Horror as worker is crushed by trash compactor in Brooklyn” —New York Post, March 16, 2013

Fayette man fatally crushed by bales of paper” —The Tribune-Review, (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) December 20, 2011

Amputation at Recycling Plant Prompts OSHA Action in New Jersey” —Waste Management World, March 20, 2013  

Man run over at recycling center in North Bay” —ABC7 News, March 12, 2013  

Recycling is one of the fastest-growing job sectors within the waste-management industry, with jobs already far outpacing traditional trash-collection jobs and wages.

                                                                                                          (Bureau of Labor Statistics)
                                                                                                         (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Despite the growth, these jobs are also quickly becoming some of the most hazardous, according to the report. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 recycling workers died on the job, and the rate of nonfatal injury incidents for them was 8.5 per 100 workers in 2012—higher than the injury rate for waste-management and remediation jobs in general, which is 5.1 per 100 workers.

As the news headlines above indicate, some of these nonfatal injuries still end up threatening workers lives, if not their livelihoods. This often happens because the facilities themselves are not up to code. In Salinas, California, an employee suffered a fractured leg at a recycling center that was cited by the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration for multiple violations related to its equipment. A recycling plant in Atlanta was cited for 15 serious safety violations, including failure to train industrial truck operators and lack of adequate guards for its conveyor belts.

Atlanta is among the top 10 metros in the nation in terms of employing recycling workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the Salinas metropolitan area has one of the highest location quotients, defined by the Bureau as “the ratio of the area concentration of occupational employment to the national average concentration,” in the nation for recycling jobs.


                                                                                                         (Bureau of Labor Statistics)

People favor the expansion of recycling because of its environmental and climate benefits, as well as for its urban job creation potential. The report’s authors cite studies that have found that recycling creates 10 times as many jobs per ton of waste as do jobs provided by centers using incinerators and landfills.

But many of these jobs come by way of temp agencies that have little investment in proper training or outfitting of workers with adequate safety gear.

For these reasons, the report’s authors are calling for cities to restrict using temp agencies, especially for recycling work covered by city contracts. They also recommend that cities add in requirements to these contracts that allow for strong monitoring and inspection of recycling-center facilities, to ensure that workers are getting all the protection they need.

When Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, he was in Memphis advocating on behalf of black garbage workers, a few of whom had died on the job and who few people in society thought much of. If King were alive today, he’d probably be taking a close examination at those who labor in recycling, too.

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