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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.