Transforming Trash


Check out our new report on protecting the recycling workers who protect the planet!


At the Partnership for Working Families, we see recycling and zero waste as a social solution at the intersection of two major crises: climate change and economic inequality. And we’re proving that transforming trash is a key step that cities can take as they lead our country toward economic and environmental sustainability.


Our current waste management practices fuel climate change and environmental injustice at both ends of the waste cycle. On the back end, landfill methane accounts for almost 20% of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In many cities diesel trash trucks still spew asthma-causing particulate matter and nitrous oxide. And where corporations burn trash (even if they call it waste to energy), they emit toxics into already overburdened communities. On the front end of the waste cycle, the production and movement of goods accounts for 44% of our total GHG emissions. So a critical environmental impact of recycling is actually the emissions we prevent when we don’t extract, transport, and manufacture with virgin natural resources.


Today’s recycling system doesn’t work for workers either. In 2013, refuse and recycling collectors had the 5th highest fatality at work rate in the country, making their occupation more dangerous than that of electric power-line installers and construction workers. Recycling workers, often immigrant women and men making minimum wage, face the daily hazards of hand-sorting household and commercial waste that’s blazing by on a conveyor belt, and working in tight spaces near heavy equipment. The waste industry appears to rely on temporary labor and staffing agencies for a significant segment of its labor supply, making it part of the trend toward precarious jobs and the avoidance of employer responsibility that’s eroding what it means to have a job in America.


Here’s the good news: waste and recycling workers, environmentalists and zero waste advocates, communities of color, and climate justice activists are all banding together to transform the trash industry, with exciting results. Cities have unique policy levers that can capture the potential of recycling, and when spurred on by a grassroots movement, they’re doing it!


At the Partnership, we add up these local wins into a national movement to transform trash, and capture the full potential of the recycling industry. Together with partners like the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, and the National Council for Occupational Safety & Health network, we are taking local change to scale and creating a replicable model for cities across the country


Check out our new report on recycling worker health and safety.