Recycling helps us reduce waste and reuse valuable resources. By minimizing the need to extract or mine new materials as well as the waste we send to landfills, recycling helps lower greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Understanding how the recycling process works and how recycling workers do their jobs can help consumers recycle better — and protect the recycling workers you rely on.
Recycling needs to be profitable for waste processing companies to stay in business. That means facilities need to be efficient, comfortable, and safe in order to attract and retain workers. In fact, keeping workers safe improves productivity and lowers the cost of replacing workers who quit or get hurt. We talked with representatives of two waste haulers that manage material recovery facilities (MRFs), Rumpke and Waste Management. Both companies confirmed that the safety of their employees is of the highest importance at their recycling processing facilities. Keeping the machines operating efficiently is the second most important task of their staff.
Nevertheless, as of 2016, MRF employees were injured at a rate of 6 per 100 workers, almost three times the national average for all industries. The injuries are often due to incorrectly sorted items that should not have been sent to the MRF in the first place.
Protections for MRF Workers
MRFs are loud, dusty environments with many moving parts that can be dangerous. The workplace can be very hot or very cold depending on the weather and conditions of the facility. For safety, workers must wear steel-toed shoes and high-visibility vests (or coats). All staff must wear hard hats when moving around the large buildings.
Many workers also wear puncture-resistant gloves. Sometimes, these gloves are long enough to extend over workers’ elbows and protect their arms. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2016 that 45% of MRF injuries are caused by needlesticks despite the fact that medical sharps are not generally accepted for recycling. The Environmental Research and Education Foundation suggests that up to 1,484 needlestick injuries occur each year, costing recyclers about $2.25 million to treat.
MRF staff get a lot of training. Every employee must take an initial safety training when hired. Continued training is needed when recycling protocols or best practices are updated. Foremen and managers receive training on how to react quickly to an emergency, especially to a battery fire. These fires can start and spread quickly and cause explosions. A July 2021 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that it found 245 battery-caused fires at 64 MRFs it studied. Five of the MRFs reported injuries from those events.
In addition, machine and equipment operators must be certified in the equipment they use. Maintenance workers are also certified. When repairing or maintaining a machine, the technician completely turns off the equipment. A “lock out/tag out” process is often used to lock machines so they can’t turn back on during maintenance. The workers must then “tag out” the machine to show that it is cleared to run again.
Recycling Worker vs Sorting Machine
Machines do the bulk of sorting the materials at MRFs. First, the load of recycling is dumped onto the tipping floor (also called the receiving floor). Workers conduct a pre-sort and remove large, obvious contamination. Workers have reported that they’ve found and removed dead deer, bowling balls, crowbars, and full electric vacuums at this stage. None of those items should be sent to a MRF for disposal.
After pre-sorting, workers load the materials onto a conveyor belt using heavy equipment loaders as well as large shovels. As the conveyor belt feeds materials into the machine sorting system, workers stand on platforms along the conveyor belts to sort out additional contamination — items that will either harm the machines or that the machines cannot sort.
MRFs use many different technologies to sort the materials. No two facilities have exactly the same setup. At some MRFs, screens with rotating shafts sort paper and cardboard from the waste stream. Glass is heavy and falls out in a separate sorter. Optical scanners, magnets, or infrared lighting may be used to sort plastics and metals. Some materials are ejected with air currents. However, humans are in charge of quality control because the computers can’t distinguish every item that goes through the sorting process.
After the materials are sorted by type, a machine compresses them into large bales, which are visually inspected again by a worker. These bales may be stacked and can fall on workers. Trucks then transport the bails to a warehouse for storage until they are shipped to the various businesses that recycle each material.
While sorting recyclable material is the primary role of the MRF, sorting is not the only job role there. Additional jobs at MRFs include machine technicians, maintenance workers, small equipment operators, bailer operators, loaders, foremen, and managers. Also, housekeeping workers continually clean the walkways, reducing trip hazards and dust.
Successful Recycling Starts With You
Every material recovery facility is different. They don’t all have the same types of sorting machines or the same buyers for the sorted materials. For these reasons, even recycling programs in neighboring communities may not accept the same materials for recycling. As you may have already experienced, this can be both confusing and frustrating for community members.
However, the profitability of the local recycling business and the safety of its workers both start with local community members. It’s essential that we sort our recycling correctly, according to local guidelines.
Materials that do not belong in the recycling stream take time to sort out. They may even damage the machines and be hazardous to workers (especially batteries and medical sharps). Common waste like plastic bags or shredded paper can cause machines to jam and shut down the sorting process. Climbing into the big machines to clear jams is time-consuming and can be dangerous for the worker. In addition, the delays reduce efficiency, making recycling more costly.
Understanding what you can recycle in your community helps keep the workers safe and the recycling process efficient.
Originally published on March 29, 2022, this article was updated in February 2023.