Recycling’s dirty little secret

Victoria Leon and Sergio Gonzalez have seen some nasty things at their work. The married couple from Oakland has been employed for the past five years at Waste Management’s Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro, where they sift through the stuff that East Bay residents put in their recycling bins. Unfortunately, it’s not all cans, bottles, and cardboard. Leon and Gonzalez have seen numerous dead animals roll by on the conveyor belt that passes their sorting stations, including a lot of cats and rats, and, once, two pit bulls. They also have seen medical waste, human feces, needles, batteries, and a variety of mysterious, foul-smelling substances.

“If people just put recycling in the recycling,” Leon said in a recent interview, “that would solve many of the problems.”

But many residents don’t realize the ramifications of putting garbage and other waste in recycling bins. “A lot of us don’t know or don’t think about the fact that human beings sort through” the recycling at transfer stations, such as the one in San Leandro, noted Agustin Ramirez, Northern California organizer for the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU), which represents about two hundred of the workers at Davis Street.

In one of the buildings at Davis Street, a huge open shed, stuff from the recycling bins moves along a two-story maze of shrieking conveyor belts. Workers sort the recyclables with the help of machines fitted with screens, filters, and optical scanners. But first, some of the workers pick out the non-recyclable trash by hand. “The job we do is dangerous,” Leon said.

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