Sunday, November 13, 2005

Behind The Seemingly Labor-Saving Service, A Nasty Job

by Tom Bozzo

Speaking of Madison's recycling program, part of the "magic" of the new recycling bins (and what makes me amazed that the recall faction has a beef with them) is that they're the visible end of a "single stream" recycling program: Users of the system are absolved from the former need to sort and bundle or bag different types of recyclables themselves. Bundling catalogs and magazines was so far down my preference ranking of chores that I'd have been willing to pay a premium to be absolved of the responsibility, were the new system not expected to pay for itself by way of injuring Streets Department workers less frequently than the old system.

Still, I wondered what happened to the recyclables since I wasn't sorting them, and this morning's State Journal had the answer. It's not a pretty sight. The process of separating the various types of recyclables (plus stuff that's garbage that gets mixed in) is an amalgam of machine sorting and hard manual labor. The Chicagoland workers who do the sorting for us deserve, at a minimum, a tip of our latte mugs as:
The conveyor belts at the Recycle America Alliance facility move so fast that shift supervisors say they can tell within 10 minutes if a new hire is going to cut it.

Workers must learn to look only at what is directly in front of them. To do otherwise risks motion sickness.
Also a problem: hypodermic needles. Medical personnel often tell patients to dispose of needles in plastic bottles, which is fine, Schmidt said.

But then the patients try to recycle the bottles. The resulting puncture wounds are the top cause of injuries among workers at recycling facilities, he said.
Oy. I can only imagine what the turnover is like. The work is potentially dangerous in other ways, too. A worker at an automobile recycling facility on the east side of Madison got caught in a piece of machinery and was killed on Friday.

On the plus side, the city's recycling program is collecting markedly more material in the single stream system, saving $18,500 in landfill fees since implementation, and it's earning a profit on the sale of the recyclable material as well.

I can't help thinking that the employees of the recycling company would benefit, on balance, from increased automation of the sorting process.
"the employees of the recycling company would benefit, on balance, from increased automation of the sorting process."

Can I start laughing now? Or are we counting the larger bonuses to the managers in that "balance"? (Yes, I hope you're right and I'm wrong--the work clearly requires a greater level of skill than it did before, and should be compensated accordingly.)
Ken: Well, I wrote that not knowing the line employee turnover rate at the plant, but assuming it's high enough that I can neglect the effect of a future technology-related RIF on current workers.

Also, as I'm always the optimist, I'm assuming that remaining employees would be able to collect at least a portion of the increased marginal product of labor. (Now you can go ahead and laugh. Meanwhile, I have to move on to something else -- it gives me motion sickness just thinking about that work!)
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