Published on March 16th, 2012 | by Susanna Schick0
The Dark and Seamy Underbelly of the Recycling Industry
March 16th, 2012 by Susanna Schick
“We choose good jobs and a clean environment”
-Allison Chin, Sierra Club
Today was Day One of the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference in Los Angeles, held by the Blue Green Alliance. That’s not blue as in oceans, that’s blue as in blue collar workers. This exciting conference brought together clean tech industry leaders, labor union leaders, government, investors and educators to discuss how best to create more green jobs. This builds on the work Van Jones did in promoting a Green Collar Economy. Villaraigosa and many other speakers (from The Sierra Club, NRDC, laane, and more) all mentioned the importance of working together to create more quality green jobs. What I found most compelling was the trash talk. Apparently, we’ve got quite a mess on our hands here in Los Angeles.
“We gotta grow the economy but we gotta green it too! We want to make the capital of smog the capital of sustainability.”
-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Mayor Villaraigosa gave a rousing Plenary speech, talking about how much the city has improved, and where we’re headed. He said: “Greening the port has to go hand in hand with growing the port. We have greened the port, reducing emissions from ships and trucks while also increasing port volume throughout the recession, at the world’s second busiest port. We set the highest standards for port truck emissions. We have reduced SOX by 76%, diesel particulates by 69%, and NOX by 52%.”
“Those of us who were born & raised here remember the days when you couldn’t leave the classroom at recess.”
-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
The Department of Water and Power is responsible for 33% of city’s emissions, about 2 billion tons of co2. When LA adopted the Kyoto protocol, its goal was to reduce GHG emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by 2012. This was accomplished by 2009, and will be 13% below 1990 levels by the time Mayor Villaraigosa leaves office. Of course, this doesn’t account for all the folks idling in traffic in their Hummers, or the smog China sends our way, but it’s a start.
It’s a Dirty, Dirty Business
Villaraigosa also stated that 71% of Los Angeles’ trash is recycled (the American average is 33%). However, in a later panel, Ananda Lee Tan of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) explained that waste haulers are allowed to self-report, so the number may not be completely accurate. The waste disposal industry in Los Angeles, America’s second largest waste “market”, was likened to the Wild West by laane’s Greg Good. He explained that 30% of the 2.9 million tons of waste we send to landfills and incinerators is household waste. 70% is from businesses and multi-family dwellings larger than 5 units.
In the city of Los Angeles, households are given three bins — trash, recycling, and yard waste (which is gradually becoming composting, as the county has begun to roll that out). Businesses (including apartment buildings, condominiums, offices, retailers, etc.), however, have a very different system. They negotiate with independent waste haulers and usually don’t bother with the added expense of recycling collection. Smaller customers with weaker bargaining power often pay more (as much as 100% more!) for the same amount of waste collection as a larger customer — say, an owner of multiple buildings. There are no regulations at the city level around waste hauling and sorting, so the working conditions in this industry are also quite bad.
For lunch, we were all invited to take a short bus ride with boxed lunches courtesy of the Teamsters. We visited a nearby recycling facility, American Reclamation. There we joined a group of Teamsters who were rallying for the workers of that facility. We heard from a woman who had been fired an hour after breaking her tailbone in a workplace accident. She told us of the abusive work environment, and her co-workers also told us about just how unsanitary this unregulated workplace was, even in the break room and bathroom, and how unsafe their trucks were. The main takeaway was: Do your best to avoid being stuck in front of one in any situation where the driver might need to stop.
Upon our return to the conference, we heard from SF Environment‘s Pauli Ojea about what that city is doing to move toward Zero Waste by 2020. It’s aggressive, and requires a fair bit of training for an already conscientious populace, but it’s working. The big question is: “What can Los Angeles, and other cities bigger than San Francisco, take and scale up?”
Recycling creates a lot more jobs than landfill or incineration, especially if the recyclables aren’t just sorted here, but processed here as well. There are still a few textile mills left in the US, so that recycled plastic could be woven into polyester domestically instead of having to travel to Asia and back. Speaking of the glamorous world of fashion, these lovely ladies work in the Teamsters office. I love how they’ve customized their Teamster t-shirts: