Shalina Chatlani (SFS ’17) interns for Industry Dive and is an Undergraduate Writing Fellow for the Kalmanovitz Initiative. We are thrilled to feature her blog posts about the intersection of environmental justice and worker rights on our website.
Since the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1970s, earth-conscious citizens, green groups, and politicians have worked extensively to bring environmental issues to the forefront of American political discourse. Amidst all the different ways to save the earth, recycling has become one of the easiest, most ubiquitous methodologies–the simplicity of separating the waste from the salvageable.
While only 35% of U.S. citizens recycled in 2013 according to the EPA, the benefits that recycling has had for the environment are indisputable. Just to name a few, it has reduced overuse of natural resources like timber and water, conserved energy, and offered a form of sustainability for future generations. With so much real-world good and sentimental positivity surrounding recycling, it is difficult to turn, or even want to develop, a critical eye toward the industry as a whole.
It’s undeniable that recycling is an essential institution that contributes to earth-friendly causes; however, it’s also critical to recognize that the industry surrounding recycling is not as friendly to its workers. This article isn’t meant to disparage recycling, but to shed light on parts of the industry that are less discussed and to offer some insight into the complicated relationship between environmental justice, race, and workers’ rights. In the face of such concern over the fate of the earth, the plight of workers can often take a backseat to the larger cause.
First, we should consider some of the positives. A 2015 report put out by GAIA, in conjunction with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, entitled “Sustainable and safe recycling: protecting workers that protect the environment,” it was cited that the recycling economy “has the potential to…create 1.5 million jobs.” The report offers some greater detail to this statistic:
At our current national recycling rate of 34.5%, the U.S. recycling industry employs nearly 1 million people and generates billions of dollars of economic activity annually (Tellus 2011, USEPA 2012). Studies have shown that recycling creates at least 10 times as many jobs per ton of waste as disposal in either incinerators or landfills, and that investments in recycling, composting, and recycling reliant manufacturing could produce 1.5 million more jobs across the country.
The recycling industry is critical to job growth and the environment, but there’s a caveat. The report, after citing the statistic, quickly switches to a discussion on workers’ rights:
But recycling workers face serious hazards on the job. In too many cities across the country, sorters work in loud and dusty facilities where they are often exposed to extreme temperatures…They work with heavy equipment in dangerous situations – climbing onto and into massive conveyor belts and balers to clean them. They maneuver past huge front-end loaders and forklifts, and walk by heavy bales of material that, when unsafely managed, can fall on workers who are in the wrong place at the wrong time… As a result of these unsafe conditions, recycling workers face above-average injury rates and are sometimes even killed on the job.
The recycling industry has various facets of processing. One key area of interest, particularly in a discussion on workers’ rights, is the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where nearly 21,000 laborers across the U.S. process the recyclable materials that have been collected by waste collection crews. At these facilities, the materials collected are separated, sorted, and placed into machines by hand, a reality that leads to a plethora of workplace injuries, even some fatalities.
For example, seventeen workers were killed on the job at MRFs between 2011 and 2013 in some of the most gruesome ways, which include “being struck by moving vehicles at MRFs … being caught or crushed in balers and other heavy machinery … being crushed by falling bales, and being buried under tons of materials.” Outside the realm of fatality, it is important to also consider workplace injury. According to the same report, “the rate of nonfatal injury incidents in MRFs was 8.5 per 100 workers in 2012,” which is a much higher than the average 3.5 rate for all industries and the overall 5.1 rate for waste management and remediation services.
The survey highlights a number of other health risks that workers face, including exposure to dust, noise, hazardous materials, poor hygiene, cuts, falls, and stress. Workers also report a constant pressure of potential firing. Furthermore, due to the nature of the job, the industry largely relies on temporary workers, a practice that allows for abuse of laborers to go unnoticed or unchecked.
In a feature for FairWarning, Brian Joseph highlights the plight of immigrant workers, for instance, who are incapable of taking legal action against unfair working conditions:
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.
In fact, an article from In These Times reports that workers, including immigrant workers, went on strike at a waste management facility in Northern California in 2014, citing “regimes of indignity and discrimination.” These efforts helped the cause of workers, who previously received no health insurance, vacations or holidays and garnered low wages, even for recycling, of about $8.30 per hour on day shift and $8.50 at night.
Recycling workers at Alameda County Industries—probably those with the worst conditions—began challenging their second-class status. Not only did they become activists in a growing movement throughout the East Bay, but their protests galvanized public action to stop the firings of undocumented workers.
Of course a cursory glance at the recycling business would not address the broader labor concerns in the industry or do justice to the benefits of recycling in general. The tremendous contribution that recycling has made to environmental efforts is indisputable. Yet statistics offering a glimpse into the lives of workers at recycling facilities demonstrate that looking at the industry more critically is essential. Ecological protection is a human right on many scales, but so is the right to a safe and hazard-free work place.
The good news is that federal and state governments can improve working conditions in the industry by holding facilities accountable. As concluded in the GAIA report, “municipal governments have the power and responsibility to increase industry accountability and improve recycling worker health and safety.” Truly, such reflection and oversight is necessary to protect workers’ rights.