Recycling’s Dirty Little Secret

The people who sort our recyclables have dangerous — and sometimes disgusting — jobs. And they're about to get worse.

Victoria Leon and Sergio Gonzalez have seen some nasty things at their work. The married couple from Oakland has been employed for the past five years at Waste Management’s Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro, where they sift through the stuff that East Bay residents put in their recycling bins. Unfortunately, it’s not all cans, bottles, and cardboard. Leon and Gonzalez have seen numerous dead animals roll by on the conveyor belt that passes their sorting stations, including a lot of cats and rats, and, once, two pit bulls. They also have seen medical waste, human feces, needles, batteries, and a variety of mysterious, foul-smelling substances.

“If people just put recycling in the recycling,” Leon said in a recent interview, “that would solve many of the problems.”

But many residents don’t realize the ramifications of putting garbage and other waste in recycling bins. “A lot of us don’t know or don’t think about the fact that human beings sort through” the recycling at transfer stations, such as the one in San Leandro, noted Agustin Ramirez, Northern California organizer for the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU), which represents about two hundred of the workers at Davis Street.

In one of the buildings at Davis Street, a huge open shed, stuff from the recycling bins moves along a two-story maze of shrieking conveyor belts. Workers sort the recyclables with the help of machines fitted with screens, filters, and optical scanners. But first, some of the workers pick out the non-recyclable trash by hand. “The job we do is dangerous,” Leon said.

Although Waste Management spokesman David Tucker said employees get OSHA-approved protective gear and have not had an accident in more than a year, workers say that sorting through trash exposes them to real hazards. Gonzalez said he was cut one time by a contaminated piece of broken glass. Doctors ended up removing a four-square-inch area of his infected skin.

Needles can jab through the cloth gloves, too, Leon added. And there’s “the dust flying around us,” said Gonzalez. “They give us masks but those don’t filter out fumes from chemicals,” said Martin Reyes, who sorts the material that people bring to Davis Street themselves. “And the dust gets on my clothes, so I take that home — what’s in that dust?” One thing that’s definitely in the dust, Gonzalez said, is particles of glass: “There’s a machine that crunches the glass. They give us special glasses but the glass particles can get past them” and cut workers’ eyes.

In short, workers like Leon, Gonzalez, and Reyes have difficult jobs that pay relatively poorly. And their work could get even more disgusting because of a decision earlier this year by the Oakland City Council. The council approved a controversial plan that would force workers to sift through a large chunk of the city’s garbage — not just the stuff that ends up in recycling bins — in order to dig out food waste to be composted.

Oakland officials say they’re trying to keep as much compostable material out of landfills as possible in order to help fight climate change, but some environmental groups and labor unions say the city’s plan may actually make things worse — not only for low-paid workers who will have to sift through the nasty mess of garbage and food waste, but also for the planet. The city’s plan, critics say, undermines efforts to educate consumers about the importance of composting.

At the same time, Oakland’s plan also serves as an example of a growing issue within the green economy: how to recycle and compost as much waste as possible without harming either the safety or the livelihoods of the frontline workers.

Recycling has come a long way in a relatively short time. A few decades ago, “a precious few in Berkeley and Marin were recycling our wine bottles,” noted Ruth Abbe, a member of the Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Committee. “Now everyone gets a 64-gallon can. It’s great. It’s the democratization of recycling. On the other hand, it’s a challenge getting the word out, educating people to know what’s recyclable and what’s not — winning hearts and minds.”

Over the years, people have gotten pretty good at recycling cans and bottles, although “we still need to do better with paper,” said Oakland’s recycling specialist, Peter Slote. But for many people, the idea of composting — putting food scraps in a separate green bin and processing them to produce fertile soil for growing more food — remains unfamiliar. “We’re still at the beginning stages” of educating the public about composting, said Abbe. “We’re still overcoming the ick factor.”

Single-family homes in Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and other East Bay cities now get three bins — for recycling, compost, and trash. But in many businesses and apartment buildings, everything has just been going into the trash. Starting July 1, however, a new Alameda County mandatory recycling ordinance will require most commercial properties and multifamily residences to provide enough recycling bins to accommodate all the recyclables they generate. In two years, by July 1, 2014, all businesses will be included. And they will all have to separate compostables (food scraps and yard waste).

According to the county’s StopWaste agency, about 60 percent of the stuff that now goes into the landfill — valued at $100 million a year — could be recycled or composted. The county’s goal is to get that down to 10 percent by 2020. That’s going to mean a lot more recyclables going through the sorting process at Davis Street, according to Waste Management spokeswoman Karen Stern.

But Oakland is taking a different path than the county, and it’s generating a backlash. The Oakland City Council approved a draft Zero Waste plan that calls for workers to sort through not just the trash that finds its way into recycling bins but also all garbage from Oakland’s multifamily residences. The draft plan, scheduled to take effect in 2015, would continue the city’s practice of providing single-family homes three separate bins: for trash, recyclables, and compost (food scraps and yard waste), and would extend that program to commercial properties. But apartment buildings would get only two bins: one for recyclables, and the other for trash and food scraps, which would be separated later in a “materials recovery facility” (MRF). That’s the part that the Sierra Club, the ILWU, and other community groups object to — they want apartment buildings to get green compost bins, too.

But the Oakland City Council approved the two-bin plan for multifamily buildings in January on the recommendation of Public Works Agency staff. That plan is based on “a climate-change and environmental imperative to get [compostables] out of the landfill,” explained recycling specialist Slote. Rotting food generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Landfill technology captures some of the methane, but some escapes into the atmosphere. Even with a green bin available, residents often put compostable material into the trash, which ends up in the landfill. By allowing apartment-dwellers to combine the materials in their homes, and then have workers sort them in a MRF, the city will be able to divert most, it not all, compostable material away from the landfill, Slote said.

Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who sits on the Public Works Committee, said councilmembers were impressed by the recycling program in San Jose, where food scraps all go into the trash bins and are sorted out later. “Our understanding is they’re getting a much higher recovery rate of organics,” Schaaf said, referring to compostable material. By contrast, said Slote, San Francisco puts green bins in apartment buildings, but “we’re confident they’re recovering less than 50 percent” of the food scraps.

It’s “an environmentalist utopian point of view,” he argued, to think that a three-bin system in apartment buildings will capture all the organic material. And more recovery of compostables, said Schaaf, means “doing a better job of meeting our zero-waste goal.”

Slote also argues that separating compost won’t work very well for apartment-dwellers because multifamily buildings are different from single-family houses. Single-family homes have “yard trimmings that dilute the food scraps and reduce the ‘volatility’ [translation: smell], as opposed to a plop of wet food scraps rotting,” he said.

A Public Works Agency report cited additional problems in apartment buildings: tenant turnover, “space constraints,” and “wide variations in tenant participation in source-separation.” After discussions with the Sierra Club and others, however, the city did amend the plan to allow a three-bin system in an apartment building if the owner requests it. The city’s plan has the support of the East Bay Rental Housing Association, which represents apartment-building owners.

Once the trash-plus-food-scraps material is collected, Slote said, “processing technology is available today or will be in five to ten years that will capture organics [food scraps and yard waste]. I believe we’re in a brave new world of organic material management.”

Oakland’s plan, for example, envisions sending trash through an enclosed container in which anaerobic bacteria would eat up some of the food scraps, generating methane in a controlled space so it can be captured for fuel. Screens and filters will separate some of the rest, so the process will be “very hands-off,” Slote contended, although he added that there’s “always a little hand-processing.”

And once the organic material is separated from the trash, Slote concluded, “we’ll have access to all that material, not just get it out of the landfill but capture it in value-added products, in compost,” which would be sold for uses like landscaping. And this work could be done locally, Slote said, rather than burning fuel to ship compostable material to the Central Valley. Compost that’s been contaminated with trash, however, cannot be used for food production.

In general, the Sierra Club likes Oakland’s plan, especially the emphasis on “source separation,” asking both homeowners and businesses to put recyclables, compostables, and trash into three separate bins, said zero waste advocate Abbe. “We are 100-percent enthusiastic about that,” she said. “Jumping up and down!” But the Sierra Club is distressed at the “disconnect” for apartment dwellers, she added. “We’re very concerned about writing off a whole sector of the population.” It’s as if city officials “don’t trust them, don’t think they can educate them, don’t think the zero-waste vision can be shared by everybody.”

At an Oakland City Council meeting, Abbe argued against the creation of a MRF to separate compost and garbage that comes from multifamily buildings. “We want to focus first on education and outreach, going door-to-door” she said in an interview. “We need to invest in social marketing, education to change the culture.

“We’re at the tipping point,” she added, referring to compost education. “Only this year we’ve gone up to forty schools in Oakland with composting programs. But many of these kids live in multifamily buildings so they aren’t able to recycle and compost at home. That’s inequity.”

This is the heart of the Sierra Club’s opposition to Oakland’s plan: “By giving up on multifamily buildings, you make the education job harder,” Abbe said. “We need the same system everywhere. You do the same thing, composting and recycling, at home, at school, at work. We want people to understand — it’s not just trash; it’s very impactful. We all have a personal responsibility and can take action.”

Abbe also is not convinced by the high recovery rate of organic material at San Jose’s MRF. First, she said, that facility is not comparable to the one Oakland would create because it processes material that includes a lot of yard trimmings from San Jose suburbs. Anyway, she said, “a high rate of diversion is not my goal. My goal is sustainability. It’s not sustainable for folks not to learn.”

A technological solution like San Jose’s, she continued, tells people, “don’t worry about trash, someone else will take care of it.” But if people don’t understand what happens to the waste, “how can they make appropriate buying decisions about products and packaging? Why should they minimize trash?”

“Oakland is taking the source-separation ethic very seriously on the single-family and commercial side,” she said, leading to the “highest and best use” of waste materials. For example, food scraps that have not been contaminated with trash can be turned into compost for food production. “And in the long run,” she said, “it’s cheaper.”

Members of ILWU Local 6 share Abbe’s conviction that more education is the key to improving the process. They also oppose Oakland’s plan for a more immediate reason: Separating trash from compost would be “hazardous for our folks,” said ILWU organizer Ramirez. If compost goes into the trash bins and is separated later, that means “people will have to sort through it — now trash goes straight to the landfill.” Even with all the technology the city’s plan envisions, it would require some workers to get up close and personal with whatever people throw in the garbage.

Safety, moreover, is always an issue at waste-disposal facilities. Earlier this month, for example, all the workers in the section of the Davis Street facility where recycled materials are stored signed a petition asking management to deal with the growing rat population there. They provided graphic descriptions of cleaning enclosed areas filled with rat droppings and pointed out that they had not seen an exterminator for more than a year. In response, Waste Management launched a major rat-poison offensive.

And working with compost can involve other hazards. Last month, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued sixteen citations against the state’s largest compost-processing facility, Community Recycling and Resource Recovery in Bakersfield, in connection with the deaths of two brothers, Armando and Heladio Ramirez. Armando was poisoned by hydrogen sulfide as he was cleaning a stormwater drain at the composting facility, and Heladio was overcome by the fumes when he tried to rescue his brother.

Global warming, though, endangers all of us, and that’s the main argument for the current Oakland plan: By allowing people to combine food scraps with trash, then separating them in an efficient MRF, Oakland would be reducing the amount of rotting material in the landfill, so less methane would be released.

However, even that assumption is being challenged. Waste Management spokeswoman Stern said the company currently captures more than 90 percent of the gasses from its Altamont landfill with state-of-the-art technology and a powerful motive: Landfill gas is worth money. Some of the gas captured at Altamont is burned to generate electricity that Waste Management sells to the grid — enough to power 35,000 homes, the company estimates — and some produces liquid natural gas, which fuels Waste Management trucks.

Waste Management spokesman Tucker also countered another Oakland Public Works staff argument: that building a MRF in Alameda County would make it possible to process compost locally instead of shipping it to the Central Valley. Tucker said that most of Alameda County’s compost is already processed locally — at the Davis Street facility and at landfills in Altamont and Novato, although some is still shipped to the Central Valley.

At the Redwood landfill in Novato, Tucker said, “material from your table scraps and yard clippings” is turned into Waste Management’s high-grade Earthcare compost, sold locally to vineyards, community gardens, and homeowners. “It’s a closed loop,” Tucker said. That’s the zero-waste ideal. Stern added that the company is now applying for a permit to build a similar facility in Alameda County. “We’ve invested significant resources to clean the compost,” Tucker added. “That allows us to get the best rating from the US Composting Council, certified for use in organic agriculture.”

Oakland’s next contract for waste disposal will address not just the handling of compost, recyclables, and trash, but also the treatment of workers. A city staff report include “social equity” as a goal for the system, along with economic and environmental improvement. But members of ILWU Local 6 who work at Davis Street have been meeting with Public Works Agency staff, the council Public Works Committee, and individual councilmembers, pushing them to also include a list of nine “social equity” provisions in the city’s request for proposals.

High on the union’s priority list is raising the pay. The average wage for people who sort recycling at Davis Street is $12.65 an hour, said Local 6 staffer Fred Pecker. “When you have a family, it’s really hard to support your kids on that,” said recycling worker Leon. She and her co-worker husband Gonzalez have three children, ages eleven, eight, and four.

According to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which calculates a “self-sufficiency wage” for workers in California, by county and family type, an Alameda County family of five like Leon’s and Gonzalez’s needs each parent to earn $21.06 an hour.

Ironically, lower pay for waste-disposal workers has been an unintended consequence of our success in recycling, said the ILWU’s Ramirez. Recycling workers are typically lower-paid than those who collect trash and work at landfills, because landfill jobs were created at a time when all the trash went into the landfill, and the men who collected and processed it “could make a good living providing a good public service,” Pecker said. “Recycling came in little by little, under the radar, with scavenging — metal, paper — not paid fairly as a public service.”

So as waste has shifted from landfill to recycling, there are fewer well-paying jobs and more low-wage workers. The new mandatory recycling ordinances threaten to increase that trend.

Ramirez argues that “cities have to take responsibility for what they do with the money from their citizens.” In other words, better waste-disposal policies don’t have to mean worse lives for the people who do the work. So the union wants Oakland’s RFP to require the next contractor to pay all workers a “family wage” equal to earnings in comparable nearby cities — San Francisco waste-disposal workers make $18 to $20 an hour, said Ramirez, and San Jose is not far behind. In addition, they want the RFP to require that if some jobs are eliminated, the workers get to move to new jobs with no loss of pay.

The union’s social equity goals include two other job-security provisions: a requirement that current workers can keep their jobs no matter who gets the new contract, and a ban on exporting jobs outside the county. Also on the list is a “ban the box” provision, which would prevent the contractor from asking job applicants to check a box on the application if they’ve been convicted of a felony.

The social equity provisions also include a three-bin system in multifamily buildings, a minimum number of bulky waste pickup days for all residential areas, and the right of individuals or the city to take legal action if any of the terms of the contract are violated.

Teamsters Union Local 70, which represents workers who drive the collection trucks and others who work at Davis Street and the Altamont landfill, wants the city to include in its RFP a commitment to pay the “prevailing wage,” which for Teamsters union members is already substantially higher than the pay of people who process recycling. The Teamsters also is asking for a commitment to retain the current workforce if a new contractor is selected. In return, the union is ready to promise “labor peace” — no garbage strikes.

Because the Oakland City Council has already approved the draft plan, the current strategy of some environmental groups and unions is to persuade the council to amend it. Included in the social equity request is a requirement that contractors provide an additional bid on an alternative plan that would provide for three bins — for trash, recycling, and composting — for all properties. The final RFP is to be released by the city on May 23.

Abbe of the Sierra Club emphasized the importance of Oakland’s final decision on this issue. The next waste-disposal contract will run for ten years, with the possibility of two five-year renewals, so the policies set this year could continue until 2032. And with the countywide composting mandate to take effect in two years, Abbe said her “fear is that if Oakland takes the easy way out with multifamily, the other cities will also say, ‘We’ll give up and technology will solve it.'”

It’s a basic strategic choice, she said. We could tell people not to worry about their trash and try to fix it with technology — and the labor of low-paid workers, most of whom are immigrants. Or we could focus on education, culture change, “winning hearts and minds,” and bring our production, packaging, and personal actions into line with “the zero waste vision,” she said.

And commit to making sure that the new green economy provides safe and sustainable jobs for the people who do the work.


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