There’s no serious dispute about the vital importance of recycling in saving valuable resources. Every informed person now understands that we can’t keep discarding materials after a single use, and that reducing the volume of waste sent to landfill is essential if we’re going to minimize pollution and environmental destruction. However that’s not to say that there isn’t a debate about the best way to recycle or a widespread belief that as it’s done right now the recycling industry has its own share of problems. One of the issues that need to be looked at is the people who actually work in the industry.
There’s a wide spectrum of technology used in modern recycling. Modern plasma jet plants are automated trailer units that can be easily set up and operated by a small crew. They’re largely automated and fitted with sophisticated systems to capture any dangerous chemicals emitted during the recycling process. That’s the high technology end of the spectrum though, and right now that sort of safeguard only applies to small plants in wealthier countries. A lot of recycling happens under very different conditions.
In many developing nations, and even middle-income countries like Brazil, most “recycling” is carried out by dump pickers who scavenge for potentially valuable material and sell what they find for scrap. That’s the other extreme from plasma jet units, but in between there are a lot of waste processing industries that place workers in unhealthy, and often extremely dangerous, situations. A large percentage of electrical and electronics scrap is still shipped to China for processing, where it’s sorted and broken up by hand. The processing technologies used create levels of pollution that can be extreme, and include lead and dioxins. Plastic waste is also shipped to China and other Asian nations for processing and again both pay and industrial safety standards can be extremely low.
One of the largest-scale recycling activities is shipbreaking. In the past this was often carried out in western yards, where ships would be moored alongside and stripped before being dry-docked and broken up by fairly mechanized workers. Now they’re more likely to be sold for deadweight and towed to India, Bangladesh or Turkey, where they’re simply beached then broken up by work gangs with hand-held tools. This is a polluting process that often results in oil and contaminated bilge water being released into the environment, and it’s also extremely dangerous for the workers. Deaths from badly maintained equipment, oil vapor explosions and collapsing superstructure or hulls are very common; pay for these workers is usually extremely low and protective clothing is minimal.
While many types of waste processing and sorting can’t be done economically in a high-wage economy like the USA, improved technology can change this. Much of the electronic scrap sent to China could be handled by domestic plasma arc plants if the capacity existed; it’s growing, but isn’t anywhere near large enough yet. Expanding these plants, and other advanced systems, won’t just reduce the risk to workers; it will save the energy used in transporting waste and in the often inefficient methods used to process it overseas. Finally it will create skilled jobs in the USA, so developing domestic capacity needs to be a priority in the waste industry.