For José Hernandez, recycling is more than a job

IMG_6114Outside the glass windows of the office, the incessant clatter and clashing of the Eureka Recycling‘s Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) continues nonstop. Inside, I extract the protective plugs from my ears, and sit down to talk to José Hernandez about his work at Eureka Recycling.

José started as a sorter on the line in Eureka’s MRF in 2009. About six sorters stand next to a conveyor belt in each sorting room, plucking non-recyclable materials from the waste stream as it moves rapidly past them. There’s a plastic bag, a broken cup — reach, grab, toss, and do it over again. Human sorters form the front line of recycling at the MRF.

 “Trying to save every little bit that people want to recycle. Trying to find a home for it – we don’t want to burn these things because it’s bad for the environment. I want my son to have a future where he can breathe clean air, not polluted air.” José Hernandez on We the Podcast: Zero Waste

Though he’s now the MRF line supervisor, José still fills in as needed when someone is not there. He’s also the person who can adjust speeds, slowing down the line when the stream of recyclables comes in too dirty or too wet.

As supervisor, Hernandez schedules workers, which means not only daily schedules but also schedule changes within each day. On the line, work is repetitive — reach, grab, toss the plastic bag or other non-recyclable material. To avoid repetitive stress injuries, workers rotate to different positions every three hours, so they are not in the same spot all day.

José is committed to the work, and to Eureka. A couple of years ago, St. Paul shifted from dual-sort to single-sort recycling. In dual-sort, city residents put glass, cans and plastics in one box and paper products in another. With single-sort, everything goes in one container, which meant lots of changes for workers at the Materials Recycling Facility. That, José recalls, meant lots of meetings and lots of feedback from the sorters, in order to retool for maximum efficiency. He helped to make sure every voice was heard.

Careful attention to MRF sorting systems and workers pays off. Eureka proudly claims a residual rate (materials that cannot be recycled) of 3.5 percent, far below the industry average of 10 percent, as well as premium prices for its clean bales of recycled product.

“Being there as long as I’ve been there now, it’s a place that I wouldn’t leave because what we do, it impacts the world.” José Hernandez on We the Podcast: Zero Waste

José is proud of the MRF safety procedures. For example, he tells me, every person there knows that if they see a needle, they have to stop the line completely. No one can touch a needle — it has to be scooped or swept into a dustpan and disposed of as hazardous waste. Then there are plastic bags: not recyclable, but people keep putting them in anyway. Line sorters pull as many as possible from the conveyor belt, but enough get through to clog the machinery. So break times are times to clean out the machine, and that means a complete lockout, so that it can’t start up again while being cleaned. Eureka’s safety record is great, he says. He can’t remember any accidents, and “maybe only a couple of cuts” from materials. That’s a dramatic contrast to the overall recycling industry. According to a recent report:

“The rate of nonfatal injury incidents in MRFs was 8.5 per 100 workers in 2012 (BLS 2014). This is much higher than the rate for all industries (3.5 per 100 workers) and higher than the average for all waste management and remediation services (5.1 per 100 workers) (BLS 2014).”

Like all the other workers at the MRF, and at Eureka, José works full-time and has benefits including health insurance, paid vacation, and a voluntary retirement plan. Wages for starting employees are set at a little more than the amount of a living wage in St. Paul, and go up from there.  While most of the recycling industry relies heavily on temp workers, that’s not the case for Eureka. A few temps might be hired to fill in at exceptionally busy times, but the MRF workers and the drivers are full-time, mostly long-term employees. At six and a half years on the job, José tells me, he’s the newest of the 21 MRF workers, some of whom have been there “since the beginning.”

According to Lynn Hoffman, Eureka’s chief of community engagement , people who work at Eureka are committed to its Zero Waste goal and to recycling. That commitment goes beyond the work day.

“I’m doing things that I never pictured me doing – I’m composting, have a garden in the house, recycling, showing my son – he’s the one who reminds me I have to recycle, too.” José Hernandez on We the Podcast: Zero Waste

With José’s six-year-old son, recycling comes full circle, from plant to home and back again.

By April 1, St. Paul will decide on a contract for collecting and processing recycling. For the past 14 years, St. Paul’s recycling has been handled by the nonprofit Eureka Recycling, which is one of the bidders for the new contract. This is one of a series of posts about Eureka and recycling in St. Paul.   

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Filed under environment, St. Paul Notes

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