In my decades in the recycling field, I have seen a lot of facilities, seen a lot of recycling plans, and had a lot of conversations about recycling programs. Yet one that will always stick with me was on a tour of a recycling processing facility in which there was an operations manager who said very proudly, “our number one goal is to make sure our people get home safe at the end of the day.”
When I first heard it, I remember thinking how out of place that statement sounded. I had gotten very used to the lofty almost martyristic goals that often dominate this field – those that follow themes like “we’re out to save the world” or “we’re here to preserve resources for future generations.” By those standards, hearing that someone’s primary goal was to get a crew of about 20 people home safe sounded almost small minded. Yet the longer I have been in this field, the more important those words have been.
On one hand, it goes to the very crux of our message. Many of us do state lofty goals and talk about big ideas when it comes to describing our roles: helping our campus, business, municipality; saving our earth; protecting future generations; thinking globally. In the end though, what the heck makes us think that we are even remotely qualified to do that if we can’t even keep 20 people safe for one day. On the other hand, safety has been one of the most important facets for me in terms of creating viable, effective, and sustained recycling operations. Looking back on my career, I realize that I have been able to implement far more successful facets of recycling or composting programs because of safety and aesthetics than because of any lofty environmental ideal that I had.
The Unfortunate Opportunity of Worker Injury
I have always pushed for safety as a way to avoid worker injury. However, in some cases it has taken an injury to convince people to make a change. If you are faced with an injury to one of your crew, I think it is imperative to use that opportunity to implement changes to help ensure that it doesn’t happen again. And unfortunately, an injury does present opportunity.
For example, I used to work for a school at which I had been advocating for a new automated recycle collection system. The manual collection system we had been using, collecting recyclables in bags, was so slow and inefficient that we constantly had problems with people throwing recyclables into the trash because we couldn’t collect them fast enough. But try as we might, we couldn’t get the administration to invest in the new semi-automated equipment to make the program more efficient and effective. That is until one day when I happened to be having coffee with a risk manager who started complaining about how much of a problem recycling was for her. As we were talking, I realized that we were spending so much in worker’s compensation costs from the manual lifting that based on avoiding that cost alone, we could pay back the semi-automated equipment that I had been advocating for in less than 2 years. We got the equipment. As a result, I saw my recycling rates almost double, already-collected recyclables stopped getting dumped into the trash, and for over a decade, we did not have a single worker’s comp claim from that operation.
At all of the schools that I have worked with over the years, lifting related injuries are the most common injuries that occur in recycling and trash collection. And that is a shame, because they are often preventable. You always need to remember to lift with your legs not your back. The problem is that there are a lot of collection bins on the market, especially public area bins that do not allow for safe lifting. I highly encourage you to look for collection containers that have front opening doors, so that an inner lining can be slid out and lifted safely to be dumped. The problem with top-loading bins is that they require an unsafe vertical “dead lift” to get the liner and contents out of the bin. And because that public area container is designed not to tip over, you have to dead lift the contents all the way out to clear the top lip of the container. That means lifting twice the height of the container. A 3 ½ ft high top-loading bin requires a 7 ft high dead lift to get the contents out of the container. That can be a significant issue from a safety perspective.
Another thing to consider is that paper and food waste, two of the biggest components of many waste streams, are heavy dense materials. At many businesses and institutions, if you can divert those materials into a collection cart that can be emptied hydraulically and that does not have to be re-lifted into a dumpster, you can cut the weight of your remaining trash down by at least half. That could be hundreds of tons less manual lifting for your custodial crews and collection crews each year. The safe-lifting benefits alone are often justification to improve under-performing recycling and composting programs, or to preserve existing recycling efforts.
Undoing Years of Hard Work
Most recycling programs have taken years of effort and promotions to develop. One bad safety incident can undue all of that. Early in my career, I ran a program that fell into the category of what I would call a “sustained pilot program.” It was incredibly labor intensive, inefficient, and unsafe. One day I watched as the collection crew climbed up the side of a dump truck in the freezing rain to load bags of recyclables into the back of the truck. All I could envision was one of them slipping off the truck in the ice and falling. If they had, it was not going to be a minor injury. I still occasionally have nightmares in which I can see the headline of the student paper that would have run: RECYCLING KILLS GROUNDSWORKER. It wasn’t going to read “unsafe work practice kills groundsworker”, or “lack of recycling equipment budget kills groundsworker.” It was going to read “recycling kills groundsworker” and it would have completely killed the recycling program and undone years of hard work getting the program that far. Those are the kinds of injuries that can suspend programs indefinitely, no matter how much environmental ethic there is.
Safety May be the Program More Than Apathy
Once I started better recognizing and dealing with safety-related issues, it prompted me to pay much closer attention to the operational impacts of safety-related issues. A prime example is low recycling rates. The most common knee-jerk reaction of most recycling coordinators when their program has low recycling rates is to blame the apathy of the participants. Folks must somehow not care enough about recycling or sustainability or the environment. So the result is often that we promote recycling more. In reality, the problem is likely a very different one related to operational convenience and/or worker safety. If it is significantly more convenient for staff to discard something into the trash than it is to properly recycle it, too many people are going to throw that item into the trash too often. Likewise, if your trash operation is considerably more safe than your recycling operation, which is often the case in the early startup phase of any recycling program, too often recyclables will find their way into the trash. Effective promotions will help you maximize your collection system, but in the long run, promotions cannot overcome the limitations of that system. In the long run, unsafe or inefficient operations will trump good promotions. If you want to maximize your recycling program, you need to start by maximizing the safety and effectiveness of your operation.
Does Your Goal Align with That of Your Crew?
The number one goal of your crew is to go home safely at the end of the day to see their families or friends (or go wherever it is that they go to spend their paychecks). If you don’t incorporate their safety as a primary goal of your program, you are going to be at odds with your own crew at key times. If you do consider their safety as one of your primary goals, you might be amazed at the results.