Improper consumer recycling poses dangers to plant workers

The sorters spend their shifts working in a row, sifting through stained newspapers, greasy pizza boxes and cleaning supply bottles.

“I have seen hypodermic needles inside the trash,” said Chuck Stiles, assistant director of the Teamsters Solid Waste Division and Recycling in Washington, D.C., the union representing recycling plant workers.

“People put in hypodermic needles, dead animals, used diapers.”

At Waste Management’s Reuter Recycling Facility in Pembroke Pines, the reek of misplaced garbage permeates the recycling facility, while the constant whir of the machine deafens conversation.

The heat, generated both by the machines and the closed warehouse conditions, causes beads of sweat to drip down workers’ faces as they sort through misplaced trash. All of that waste must be thrown out to get to the good stuff that can be recycled: clean glass, paper and plastic.

Recycling work, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014 report, is one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in the United States, listed high up with firefighting, police work and logging.

Sort of a Mess from Trevor Green on Vimeo.

As single-stream recycling, which puts all recyclables into a single bin, becomes more prominent and consumers smudge the line between recyclables and garbage, more workers are at risk of injury and even death.

Of every 100 workers in the recycling industry, 8.5 are injured on the job, according to a 2015 report by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 workers died.

Misplaced batteries can result in acid burns; broken glass can lead to lacerated hands. Plastic bags, a recycling employee’s arch nemesis, can shut down facilities, forcing workers to squeeze between dangerous machinery to unjam them by hand.

As more people recycle in an increasingly green movement, the conditions faced by these workers become more critical.

Injury due to wrongly sorted garbage is common inside these recycling plants. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, these facilities process dangerous chemicals, which can lead to respiratory hazards.

“We get car engines, vertical blinds, fabric, pillows,” said Shiraz Kashar, a spokesman at Waste Management Inc., the largest waste management company in North America and operator of two facilities in Florida.

“After Christmas, you know what we get the most? Christmas lights.”

Even more prominent within the recycling management industry are issues with worker treatment.

Low pay is not uncommon, with workers receiving an average of $8 an hour, Stiles said.

Florida produces more than 32 million tons of waste each year. Along with moving all that waste, workers must stand in lines, slouched over conveyor belts, separating the waste by hand.

“Our recycling facility at Pembroke Pines is one of the largest recycling facilities in the Southeast,” Kashar said, noting that the facility processes 50 tons of material an hour, with an output of up to 145,600 tons of material a year.

In 1994, a worker at the Pembroke Pines facility was killed after being run over by a front-end loader. Since then, safety measures have been installed, including a lockout system that allows an employee to lock a machine and keeps anyone else from turning it back on.

Injuries have increased alongside the workload, which can be traced to the increased use of single-stream recycling and the companies themselves, according to the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

Since its introduction in the 1990s, single-stream recycling has gained huge traction thanks to its convenience, saving consumers time sorting plastic, glass and paper.

Single stream became the primary recycling method in Florida, as Waste Management, Miami-Dade’s primary contractor, switched to the method. Since the implementation of blue bins in 2008, half of Florida now recycles.

Despite more people recycling, fewer materials are recyclable. According to Miami-Dade County’s Waste Management Department, sometimes 30 percent of all materials sent to facilities are unworkable.

“People are putting food in any bin and the whole thing must go in the trash because it’s contaminated,” said Teddy Lhoutellier, sustainability manager for the University of Miami. “If everyone would separate waste, it’d be beautiful.”

Some recyclables, tainted by grease or chemicals, don’t even make it to the processing lines. Single-stream recycling, according to a 2005 study by the Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center in Milwaukee, produces 16 times more contaminants than source-separated recycling.

“One of the keys to success with any recyclable program is educating the consumers on the right material to put in the recycling,” Kashar said.

“With any recycling program that you go to, contamination is going to be their No. 1 challenge. The way you handle that is through proper education. Recycling is very important for the environment, for the community and for business.

“Recycle often and recycle right.”