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Green Jobs Conference Promotes Recycling
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by Laurel Imlay | 2009

By Laurel Imlay—This year’s “Green Jobs” Conference was held in Washington, DC in January. Getting labor and environmentalists to the same event was a cool start to make necessary alliances in our goal to save the planet. Connecting, communicating, supporting, and learning about each other to build people power is our best hope for a sustainable future.


Green Jobs Conference Promotes Recycling


 By Laurel Imlay—This year’s “Green Jobs” Conference was held in Washington, DC in January. Getting labor and environmentalists to the same event was a cool start to make necessary alliances in our goal to save the planet. Connecting, communicating, supporting, and learning about each other to build people power is our best hope for a sustainable future.

One of the most exciting of the many workshops I attended was the one on trash. Just outside the main gathering room, as people left to go to workshops, an enthusiastic person later identified as Matteo Colombi of the Teamsters, waved at the exiting crowd to try to get us to come to a workshop entitled “Recycling: An Immediate Opportunity to Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Create Sustainable Union Jobs.” Intrigued, I detoured from the path to the transmission lines workshop. Who knew there was so much potential environmental good in trash?

Recycling efforts peaked in 1998, according to Peter Anderson, of To reinvigorate the commitment to recycling, we need a national effort with the target of “zero” waste. We have to stop burying organic compostable materials, like cardboard and food scraps, in landfills.


Why is recycling so important, and how can we do it?


One-half to two-thirds of waste is organic and, when buried, can create methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas with a shorter half-life than carbon dioxide (CO2), but 25 times more damaging to the global climate. The waste companies might tell us that methane can be captured from landfills for co-generation of energy, but to do that they have to open the landfills a bit to let in water to get methane, and so the majority of it escapes.

If the 10-year tipping point for global warming is 2019, we need to act now. And it’ll create jobs!

Kevin Drew, Zero Waste & Residential and Special Projects Coordinator with the Department of Environment in San Francisco, spent 30 years in labor, plus 20 years in environmental work. San Francisco recycles 70% of its waste, thus diverting it from the landfill, and realizing side benefits like reducing injuries to workers, and the number of rats. The composting facility makes rich compost for golf courses and vineyards, reducing their need for water, and producing healthier crops earlier. Food-waste-to-energy at the sewage treatment plant uses 200 tons of the wettest garbage in digesters for methane. Thirty percent of energy use is reduced through garbage recycling and composting, producing energy and green jobs.

Teamsters represent the workers at Norcal Waste Systems, Inc., which offers good jobs with benefits. In recycling, sorting is the hardest job. Nationally these jobs tend to be minimum wage jobs with no health insurance, sick days, or other benefits. But San Francisco planned for good green jobs. The city donated land and required Norcal to hire from low-income communities and offer job development. San Franciscans pay $24/month for one pickup per week. And Norcal is profitable.

How have they done it?


·         They set policy goals of 75% diversion of trash from landfills by 2010 and 0% waste to landfills by 2020. They have infrastructure now for 85%.

·         They formed a partnership between the city of San Francisco, Norcal, a private trash company, and Local 350, International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

·         They created an outreach effort to overcome the challenges they faced with apartment dwellers and managers.

·         uThey converted a voluntary program into one legally mandated, including a food-service-ware ordinance for compostable takeaway containers, a plastic bag ordinance, mandatory recycling and composting for all sectors. U

·         They distributed color-coded bins so households can separate their waste into three streams: recyclables like paper, cans, glass and plastic bottles; compostables like food and cardboard; and non-recyclables for the landfill.

·         Drew advises people interested in creating a similar waste reduction plan to be open to change, be willing to modify plans as you go, and be on board to pass bills.



Recycling is profitable


According to Neal Seldman, of the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR,, recycling creates jobs, saves energy and resources, and is profitable. Trash is a $50-70 billion/year industry. Recycling creates ten times the number of jobs as land-filling. Dumping 10,000 tons of computers in a landfill, for example, creates one job, while recycling 10,000 tons of computers creates 293 jobs. Deconstruction of buildings not only saves resources but gives workers good training.

What are key elements to make this happen? Federally we need a national goal of 75% recycling by 2015. Stimulus money should be used to “green” the waste stream. Every city is shovel ready for composting! We need certificate and degree programs for waste management. 

Waste separation is key. Organic and demolition waste is 60% of the waste, 500 million tons/year, and 12 billion tons comes from mining and agriculture. Who pays for the negative environmental consequences? We should tax waste, and end subsidies for landfills and incinerators.

Labor has an interest and can help. 30,000 non-union workers are in the waste industry in dangerous jobs, driving big trucks, lifting heavy loads, handling toxics that are unsafe for communities. Unions can give information about the industry. Workers can be ambassadors and watchdogs for the communities.

Businesses with interests in landfills, e.g., mega-landfill companies, haulers, and virgin-materials industries often oppose recycling. Waste Management Corporation sends 2 % to recycling and 60% of waste to disposals. Wall Street opposes recycling because there are no big bonds associated with construction. Right-wing pundits say mandatory recycling is a communist plot. But really, recycling is citizen power.


What do we need to do?


We need a revolution at the local level, with citizen power in local decision-making! Garbage should be dealt with within 50-70 miles of its origin. Local public officials need to demand that state and federal lawmakers pass legislation to encourage local towns and cities to do it right.

You can increase recycling in your school, building, or town; compost in your own yard or town. Bio-cycle magazine gives composting how-to info at

Learn more about recycling. Read Stop Trashing the Climate by Brenda Platt at Institute for Local Self Reliance Watch “Exporting Harm,” a 10-minute film at

Contact the office of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club at or 301-277-7111 to join the chapter’s Zero Waste campaign,

Check out the Catoctin Group’s recent Waste Not event to educate people about alternatives to a $500+million incinerator at

The website for the Green Jobs Conference is Some of the presentations from the conference are available on the website.


Spread the word . . .




Laurel Imlay is the Chapter Coordinator for the Maryland Chapter.


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