In an age of global warming, two global capitals, Los Angeles and New York, are going “zero waste.” Following a nationwide trend, the cities have launched new plans to aggressively reform their waste-management and recycling systems to nearly eliminate dumping in landfills.
While zero waste seems like a tall order for the two arguably trashiest places on earth, LA’s city government is currently rolling out a full-fledged Zero Waste plan that will “divert an estimated 90 percent of local waste from landfills by 2025,” including commercial and residential garbage. The system parallels a similar reform plan in New York City, as well as a national resolution on zero waste by a coalition of mayors.
A policy analysis by the advocacy group LAANE and its associated national coalition Partnership for Working Families, lays out a “blueprint” for zero waste in cities, which can save landfill space, cut pollution from collections and landfill facilities, mitigate public health impacts like lung disease and cancer, and cut carbon emissions, in turn making downwind urban neighborhoods healthier and cleaner for residents. The report emphasized that when these reforms are done right with public oversight, overhauling sanitation can save waste as well as lives, by establishing cleaner, safer, and fairer workplaces.
But according to LAANE, many municipal governments are modernizing their waste systems using regressive labor standards. “Eco-friendly” doesn’t necessarily mean safe workplaces: “waste and recycling collection has the fifth highest rate of fatality in the United States, with fatalities ten times more likely than average.”
In New York, where the De Blasio administration is moving toward zero landfill waste by 2030, commercial waste processing remains a dirty business. Allan Henry, a labor activist who started working waste trucks as a teen in 1985, has observed virtually no recycling of commercial waste by private collectors, other than cardboard—so even pre-sorted glass and cans from workplaces are dumped together indiscriminately. And employers not only flout recycling rules but basic labor protections.
Henry started out with a $16-an-hour union job, but he says some workers earn only about half that today, with little union support or safeguards. These “low-road” waste-service contractors subject workers to grueling conditions, like 16-hour shifts and no protection from harsh hot or cold weather. Companies typically “don’t even provide their workers with work gear.… most of the workers gotta buy their own gloves, their own boots, their own clothes, their own rain gear,” he adds, “and these are things that are supposed to be provided by the employer. But there’s no oversight in this industry.”