Sunday, 17 October 2010

Just when you thought you had one problem solved....

...another rears its head.

I think we all can agree that recycling is a cornerstone of sustainable events. It's something that is low hanging, basic and measurable in most cases. It's the one thing you can feel pretty good about, without the trade-offs that often exist between local and organic, for example.

Well, an experience has caused me to think again.

I had the opportunity to tour a shall-remain-nameless recycling plant in a shall-remain-nameless destination. The facility was fairly average: sort piles, belts, balers; what you would expect from a typical, mid-sized facility. The plant's ability to reclaim materials was fairly good. On average 90% of sorted materials were able to be marketed. So why did I leave the plant with a bad feeling in my stomach?

Could it be the dusty, hot working conditions? Maybe the obvious gap between management and crews? Perhaps the pristine conditions of the executive offices compared to the meager crew break areas? The obvious racial characteristics in common among the crews, which were very different than those of management? Maybe all four.

Had this been my first recycling plant tour I may not have noticed. But I've been to enough facilities to know that labour conditions in other plants appeared to be much better. Well-ventilated sorting areas with air conditioning being an obvious difference.

The experience has caused me to reflect: how safe are the recycling processes our sustainable events rely on? I recently came across the following report from Massachusetts published on Workers Memorial Day, April 28, 2010: Dying for Work in Massachusetts, Loss of Life and Limb in Massachusetts Workplaces. In the words of the report: "Just because a job is green, doesn't make it safe and well-paid". (Before you make a connection, the destination and facility I visited were not in Massachusetts.)

The report discloses an issue that I would expect exists worldwide: the need to ensure recycling workers have access to employment benefits and a safe workplace. In San Francisco civic mandates for a 75% recycling diversion are enabled by a unionized workforce. The report provides some interesting insight into the growth of 'green jobs', the hazards inherit in them, and what is needed to ensure health and safety.

Something to think about as we relish the success of the high diversion rate from landfill: Who made that happen for us and are they okay?