Recycling may be good for the environment, but working conditions in the industry can be woeful. Recycling encompasses a wide range of businesses, from tiny drop-off centers operating out of strip malls and parking lots to sprawling scrap yards and cavernous sorting plants, where cardboard, plastic, and metal destined for places like China and Turkey are separated. The recycling industry also includes collection services, composting plants and e-waste and oil recovery centers. Some of these jobs rank among the most dangerous in America. Others offer meager pay, and minimum wage violations are widespread. Experts say much of the work is carried out by immigrants or temporary workers who are unaware of their rights or are poorly trained.
“These are not good jobs,” said Jackie Cornejo, the director of Don't Waste LA, a campaign to improve the working conditions and pay for workers in the Los Angeles municipal waste and recycling industries. “People only hear about the feel-good aspects of recycling and zero waste, and rarely do they hear about the other side,” she said.
Despite its virtuous image as one of the original green industries, recycling is dirty, labor-intensive work. It involves loud, heavy machinery, including semis, forklifts, conveyor belts, loaders, cranes, shredders, and grinders, all of which pose a serious threat to life and limb, especially if they're not properly serviced or lack basic safety features, which is often the case at recycling firms. Unlike manufacturing, recycling cannot be completely systematized because it depends on an ever-changing flow of recyclable materials that come in all manner of shapes and sizes. This can require recycling workers to personally handle most of the scrap passing through a facility, potentially exposing them to carcinogens, explosives or toxics, to say nothing of sharp objects. Exposures are especially problematic at e-scrap and battery recycling facilities, where the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has found workers with elevated levels of lead in their blood or on their skin.
Analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration records found that inspections conducted from 2005 to 2014 resulted in scrap yards and sorting facilities receiving about 80 percent more citations than the average inspected worksite. OSHA has limited resources, especially given the sheer number of worksites it oversees. Generally, the hazards at scrap yards and sorting facilities are typical of any major industrial operation, with forklifts, trucks and conveyor belts in constant motion. At times, stacks of recyclables threaten to tip over and machines jam or break down. Safety measures to combat these hazards are well known and widely implemented in other industries. “This is not rocket science,” says Susan Eppes, a Houston-based safety consultant to the recycling industry. Yet basic safety procedures are often ignored in recycling plants, experts say.