Waste Workers Sorted Out of Fair Pay

January 29, 2019

Every year, the United States produces around 250 million tons of municipal solid waste. Far too much of this waste ends up back in our environment, poisoning ecosystems and doing untold harm to human health. In 2014, Boston pledged to become a Zero Waste city, aiming to divert at least 95% of non-hazardous waste from landfill or incineration by 2050.  

While this is an important goal, its currently coming at the cost of good, safe jobs for the mostly immigrant workers who work at the facility where we send our recyclables. With the City soon announcing its final Zero Waste Boston plan, MassCOSH is working with its partners in the Zero Waste Boston Coalition to ensure economic justice is as much a part of the goals as environmental justice.  

A recent MassCOSH study found there are approximately 21,000 workers who process recyclable materials at local Materials Recovery Facilities across the United States. These workers are so numerous due to the need to hand sort glass, plastics, metal, and other materials that have been mixed by consumers. These workers also fix large, dangerous machines that become jammed with plastic bags and other objects daily. 

Improper household recycling has caused these workers to suffer nearly double the injury rate of other workers. Exposure to an array of unsafe, non-recyclable materials – used needles, chemicals, dead animals, and razor sharp objects – cause near daily injury and illness. Additional hazards include working close to large machines and falling piles of waste weighing many tons, each directly causing tragic deaths on the job. MassCOSH has also found that a majority of these workers work for temp agencies, where the day-to-day nature of their employment means they are less likely to be trained on how to stay safe in this dangerous line of work.  

For twelve years, Mirna Santizo worked at Casella Waste Systems Recycling facility in Charlestown, which sorts the recyclables for the City of Boston and surrounding communities.  
“We sorted through the bins full of garbage,” said Santizo, who no longer works for the company after suffering a stroke on the job in 2013. “We would find lots of glass, and needles. Sometimes workers are punctured and hurt from the needles. We would find dead animals in the bins and it really stinks. It’s also very hot, there isn’t much air [circulation].” 

To add insult to injury, though they work on municipal contracts that are traditionally covered the City of Boston’s Living Wage Ordinance, none of the workers at the Casella are covered by it. For years, Boston (and neighboring Cambridge and Somerville) have given Casella exemptions from the law which requires that any business providing labor for a job contracted with Boston for $25,000 or more pay a living wage of at least $14.82 per hour, meaning these workers are making thousands less than the city says workers deserve.  However, this past August, the Living Wage Advisory Committee, which reviews Boston’s Living Wage Ordinance, made a clear recommendation to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh to fix this injustice. 

“Boston is trying to have it both ways, saying it is committed to improving the lives of working families and saving the environment, while excluding waste reducing recycling workers from wages its standards say are fair,” said MassCOSH Membership and Communications Director Jeff Newton. “The policy is anything but fair.” 

Fundamentally, recycling is a form of justice with an environmental focus, recovering resources for future generations and reducing the impacts of our consumption. To fully live these values, Boston must consider the human impacts of how it recycles, and invest as much energy in improving recycling worker jobs as it does efforts to become a zero waste city. Advocates have convinced millions of citizens to put the right container in the right bin. Governments have organized weekly collection from millions of households and businesses, and sell these products on a global market. Boston certainly has the capacity to give recycling workers good, safe jobs. When we recognize the dignity of these workers, recycling can reach its highest and best potential.