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
"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
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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
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.
the complete article at: Recycling's