Health and Safety

Recycling is Great for the Planet, But Dangerous!

June 25, 2015

Recycling workers on the sorting line.

By Marc Bussanich 

New York—New York City has made great strides increasing its recycling waste stream and informing New Yorkers with recycling information on the Web and placards posted in residential buildings’ basements throughout the city. Problem is, many New Yorkers may need to go through a recycling boot camp because many times they are either placing non-recyclable items into clearly designated recyclable bins, placing recyclable items into the wrong recyclable bin, or worse, discarding dangerous items that put recycling workers at risk of injury. 

Indeed, a new study just released by environmental, occupational safety, and community benefits experts in collaboration with researchers at the University of Illinois School of Public Health reveals that 17 American recycling workers perished on the job from 2011 to 2013, and that recycling workers are more than twice as likely to be injured at work as the average worker. 

In a statement, Mirna Santizo, who worked at a recycling facility for 12 years in the Boston area, said that the public has to start learning to recycle properly. 

“People put dangerous stuff in recycling bins. “We found lots of broken glass and needles. Sometimes workers were punctured and hurt from the needles,” said Santizo. 

The report, Sustainable and Safe Recycling: Protecting Workers Who Protect the Planet, is published on the website of The Partnership For Working Families (a national network of advocacy organizations who support innovative solutions to the country’s economic and environmental problems). Mary Vogel, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, one of the organizations that helped to produce the report, said that the recent death of a recycling worker in Florida illustrates the protective measures the industry must take. 

"Recycling is the right thing to do, but we have to do it the right way. That means educating and empowering recycling workers, and using proven prevention strategies, which we know will reduce exposure to hazardous conditions. That’s how we can avoid tragedies like the death of a recycling worker just last week in Florida,” said Vogel. 

Two key findings from the report mention that the industry’s high injury and fatality rates are the direct result of unsafe working conditions around heavy machinery and exposure on the assembly line to hazardous items such as hypodermic needles and toxic chemicals. Also, the industry relies too heavily on temporary workers. The report’s authors note that unionized workers, with negotiated contracts in place enjoy more effective enforcement of legally mandated health and safety protections and also have the ability to bargain for additional safeguards to improve working conditions.

Hays Witt with the Partnership for Working Families, who contributed to the report, said more cities have to adopt more robust recycling practices. 

“Many cities have figured out how to collect recycling in ways that help our environment, and create good, safe jobs. It's time to extend that approach to every city, and to every step of the recycling chain, starting with recycling sorting facilities.” 

June 24, 2015

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