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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.



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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.

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