This project, which I produced in conjunction with the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism New Media Class of 2019, is part of our class’ “Unseen” group project. The project seeks to shine light on under-explored aspects of California’s labor force – from exploitative industries to understaffed regulatory agencies to legacies of sexism and racism in various sectors of the workforce.
My project, “On the Line,” is a story about the working conditions of California’s recycling sorters. I was interested in telling this story under the “Unseen” headline for a number of reasons: First of all, Californians are environmentally-minded and love to recycle (seven of our ten most populous cities have implemented “Zero Waste” plans, for instance), yet we rarely consider what happens to our glass bottles and empty food containers after we throw them away. What happens, as I learned, does not provide a lot of moral comfort to recycling advocates.
Second, the work itself is invisible – and thus lacks accountability. We see our garbage truck drivers when they pick up our trash, and we purchase recycled goods. But we do not see the intermediary stage; when our recycling leaves the truck, it’s transported to out-of-the-way facilities called materials recovery centers, or MRFs. The work takes place far away from the average person, and it’s both dirty and dangerous. Workers told me about finding dead cats, contaminated needles and even grenades on the recycling line. They told me about having to dig their hands into broken glass, about breathing in toxic chemicals and coughing up black dust at the end of the day.
Third, the act of throwing something away – whether that’s trash or recycling – renders that something invisible. Nobody wants to look at their waste, or engage with it, once it’s in the bin. Yet as a recycling worker, that’s your job – to spent eight or more hours a day with other peoples’ waste, and in a far more intimate way than you ever will. The job makes many workers feel disrespected, like trash themselves. It makes them feel even less seen than they are.
Fourth, the people who do this work belong to the most marginalized classes in California. They are usually limited-English speaking, often undocumented and mostly women. They are rarely fairly compensated or equipped with proper safety equipment, and if they try to stand up for themselves or refuse to do dangerous tasks, they risk being fired. This lack of visibility compounds the dangers of recycling as a job, and that’s why I wanted to give these workers the chance to tell their stories.