Workers at a recycling plant in Newark, New Jersey. (AP Photo/Mike Derer)

Someone has to sort your recycling, and it’s a disgusting and dangerous job

The green economy was chugging along at the Nevada paper recycling plant that morning in June 2012, feeding an oversized mound of waste toward a conveyor belt. But when the machine got jammed, the worker who tried to unclog it suddenly got flattened by a 2.5-ton mass of paper. A coworker rushed to extract him using a front-end loader, but, according to a government report, the worker died at the hospital two days later, smothered by the dead trees he had been tasked with salvaging.

The industries that pride themselves on being friends of the earth are often hostile to workers, according to new research on the safety conditions in recycling plants. Published by the Massachusetts Council for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), National COSH, and other advocacy groups, the analysis of the industry shows that, despite the green sector’s clean, progressive image, workers remain imperiled by old-school industrial hazards. Workers face intense stress, dangerous machinery, and inadequate safeguards, while toiling in strenuous positions amid constant toxic exposures.

Often the sorting of recyclables requires directly handling hazardous materials and improperly disposed waste, such as plastic bags that accumulate and cause potentially deadly clogs in machines. Some cities allow dumping of “mixed” trash, leaving workers to separate metal cans from organic waste, or battery fluid from old meatloaf (cities could prevent such dangers through the slight inconvenience of simply requiring people to separate garbage beforehand).

Though they might lack proper safety training or protective gear, workers might routinely encounter used syringes, glass shards, noxious oil residue, or the odd squirrel.

In MassCOSH’s announcement of the report, former Boston recycling worker Mirna Santizo recalled, “We would find lots of glass, and needles. Sometimes workers are punctured and hurt from the needles. We would find dead animals in the bins and it really stinks.” Research shows composting and recycling workers also suffer “exposures and illnesses associated with inhaling endotoxins” emitted by rotting waste.

Just as sanitation workers have historically suffered both extreme labor abuses and job hazards, recycling workers’ physical insecurity is aggravated by economic vulnerability, as workplaces often lack labor protections and adequate staffing. One worker told researchers, “When I started working a sorter over 10 years ago, they had eight people on a sorting line, now there are only four, but the company expects us to work as if there are eight people on the line.” Some workers have reported “constant pressure from supervisors to work fast so as to not get fired.”

According to federal statistics, “The rate of nonfatal injury incidents in [recycling facilities] was 8.5 per 100 workers in 2012. This is much higher than the rate for all industries (3.5 per 100 workers) higher than the average for all waste management and remediation services (5.1 per 100 workers).”

A 2013 survey found seven in ten recycling workers suffered workplace injury or illness, including “musculoskeletal disorders such as injuries to the back and knees (reported by 57 percent of workers), and scrapes and cuts (reported by 43 percent of workers).” Between 2011 and 2013, 17 recycling workers died on the job.

The structure of the workforce also breeds hazards: Recycling plants typically rely on temporary workers, reducing labor costs for government, while enabling vendors to undercut wages and neglect safety standards. Studies indicate that “temporary workers earn 22 percent less than their counterparts with regular jobs and suffer more frequent injury rates,” and their precarious working conditions lead them to underreport injury for fear of retaliation. Language barriers may also keep immigrant workers from speaking up.

Unlike established municipal sanitation jobs, which often come with public-sector union protections, the minimally regulated temp workforce is often treated as disposable. Private government contractors that exploit temp laborers, many of them low-wage immigrants, have little incentive to invest in long-term safety protocols. Despite the recycling sector’s modern, progressive image, some workers interviewed resorted to stunningly primitive means to protect their bodies: “they had created their own personal hand tools (sticks with bent nails or hooks) to assist them with line sorting jobs and to attempt to relieve the stress of continuous forward reaching.” Workers are regularly are exposed to harsh outdoor temperatures ranging from freezing to sweltering.

In Massachusetts, MassCOSH Labor Environment Coordinator Tolle Graham noted that local sanitation-truck drivers are typically supported by “unions that look at working conditions and can negotiate around them.” However, unionization faces “a wall when it comes to the recycling sort centers” that hire low-wage workers. “Sadly, because of the way they’re set up, with people coming from temp agencies, and people being really fearful about their jobs, it’s been a really hard sector to have people have that voice for themselves.”

Driven by environmental regulatory goals and political hype, the green sectors are expanding, while regulations lag; recycling-related industries could add as many as 1.5 million new jobs in the coming years, as cities work to raise recycling rates, cut carbon emissions, and pursue “zero-waste” programs to curb pollution.


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission