"The dark side of recycling"

5 July 2019 - 12:45pm

An shorter version of this article first appeared in Left Foot Forward and can be seen here.

05 July 2019  


Greenpeace’s recent exposés of rubbish dumps in Malaysia and a recycling plant in London shows how the growth of this green industry has been built on exploitation in the global South as well as poorly-paid, often migrant workers in the UK. It should provide a lesson to the environmental movement that workers’ rights need to be given much greater priority in the struggle to address environmental challenges.


The workers at the West London recycling plant have to meet demanding targets on less than the living wage, they have insecure contracts, and work in filthy conditions with rats and cockroaches abound. They also work under constant surveillance with the threat of dismissal if they do not meet the targets. These conditions highlight how the recycling industry, who’s growth has been heralded as a success by environmental organisations, has failed to ensure that the jobs it promised provide decent work. 


Greenpeace’s report pays more attention to the incorrectly sorted rubbish as a result of these conditions, rather than the workers’ rights violations themselves. This isn’t unimportant: failing to respect workers leads to ineffective work, and this work is critical in the age of climate crisis. In addition, a previous report highlighted how UK consumer waste ended up in Malaysia where it was overwhelming local recycling facilities. The fact that the population as a whole has engaged in significant behaviour change, sorting their rubbish regularly, means that recycling has succeeded where other environmental measures have failed to win public buy-in. But the understandable outrage of seeing materials that the public has sorted not actually being recycled risks undermining public trust in environmental measures more broadly.


Some of the reasons why the recycling industry has reached this point are a result of changes in the economy that have coincided with its growth. The deregulation of the labour market, the use of private companies to deliver public services, and the growth of global supply chains all contribute to worsening labour conditions. This period also saw increased EU migration, meaning that a lot of the low paid, insecure and dirty work involved in recycling is now being completed by migrant workers who face additional barriers to realising their rights at work.


In recent evidence to the Migration Advisory Committee, the UK waste and recycling company BIFFA, which has a billion pound turnover, stated that 98% of labour provided by its contractors was from EEA migrants, who also made up a large proportion of directly employed roles. Migrant labour underpins the dirty, dangerous, and demeaning work in this sector. Biffa was also recently convicted of breaking the law by sending household rubbish to China that was labelled as waste paper.


The early visionary days of recycling heralded a different future. Local cooperatives, and what would now be called social enterprises, sprung up, often with strong links to grassroots environmental campaigning organisations who had a strong vision for locally sustainable economies. However, as recycling grew, these organisations had to compete on the market, including for public contracts, with large multinationals. They faced the choice of adapting or shrinking.   


Workers in recycling face significant health and safety challenges. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics on deaths at work, there are 7.22 deaths per 100,000 workers in the waste sector –, a rate 16 times the average across all industries. Additionally, a study conducted by the HSE between 2009-2014 showed that 47% of public authorities failed to meet good or high standards for the monitoring and review of health and safety performance of either in-house or contracted out waste and recycling services. 

Despite many businesses making a healthy profit from waste and recycling contracts, austerity, which has hit local councils particularly hard, has seen funding for recycling and waste services cut back, threatening to undermine progress towards recycling targets, as well as placing increasing pressure on wages and health and safety measures.   


It was in response to “inhuman working conditions” that a small group of Peruvian workers in Newham, East London, decided to walk off the job in a historic and inspiring wildcat strike in March 2018. They were demanding basic protective equipment such as face masks, air filters, gloves, overalls, soap and toilet paper, as well as a living wage and sick pay. Supported by the United Voices of the World – a small independent union – their collective resolve brought quick results when they were provided with basic safety equipment and agreement to negotiate on wages.


Looking to the future: 

With understanding of the scale of the climate crisis and the need for a significant economic transformation in the global north, it is worth considering what lessons the history of recycling can provide.


The climate crisis fans the existing flames of economic inequality and poverty, resulting in a deepening crisis of hunger, increased conflict and deepening existing racial and gender inequalities. All of which determine the very ability of people to survive climate impacts and to adapt to, and respond to, the realities of the climate crisis.


So if further horrific consequences of the climate crisis are to be reduced, it should be clear that the environmental movement cannot allow any ‘Green New Deal’ to be built on the same flawed, neoliberal thinking that has so undermined recycling. We must hardwire respect for workers’ rights as a fundamental building block of a green transition, seeing how leaving it to the vagaries of the market will result in western consumers depending on the exploitation of migrant workers and workers overseas. We need to change our default perspective from being one of consumers, to one of people who produce and create the world around us. The ITUC’s recent “Climate-proof our work ” day of action provides a hint of the potential power organised labour could bring to driving forward a green transformation. 


We need to rebuild the public realm as the best vehicle for delivering public goods, acknowledging the many ways that the profit motive undermines social and environmental goals. Recycling shows us how it has literally resulted in sorted recycling being sent for incineration and being dumped on the global south. And research from Public Services International Research Unite [PSIRU] has shown that the efficiency promised by privatisation and outsourcing were often illusory to begin with. Public-Common Partnerships offer an innovative new way of thinking about how public goods can be delivered with greater democratic participation whilst being able to reinvest wealth back into supporting public goods. 


But most of all, instead of seeing needed environmental transformation as being driven by some well-intentioned middle-class home-owners in the global north, we must centre those already marginalised, recognising they are the primary agents of change. To be successful this must break out of the green silo and learn from movements in the global South, not least how to build power. 


It must also recognise that the UK’s wealth, which determinesit’s ability to respond to the climate crisis, is built upon a bloody legacy of slavery, colonialism, and neoliberalism. We must refuse to let imperial nostalgia become the accepted goal for the UK, and pave the way for a new wave of green colonialism that simply replicates patterns of exploitation. Instead we must put forward an alternative vision of international solidarity and cooperation.


Redefining the UK’s relationship to the rest of the world in the post-Brexit era requires us to push the UK to take on its fair share of collective global climate action (by 2030 the UK would need to reduce its emissions 202% below 1990 levels). As this is obviously greater than what we can physically achieve within our own borders, and we need to fund mitigation efforts in poorer countries, and cover the massive costs of adapting to a changing climate, dealing with damages, and supporting hundreds of millions of climate migrants over the coming decades. 


If the exposé of waste recycling ending up in Malaysia, and rat and cockroach infested exploitative workplaces in west London, are to mean anything, they should mark a moment where the environmental movement starts to address how neoliberalism is fundamentally undermining the struggle for a sustainable planet, and in its place call for the radical transformation driven by movements of those most affected that is so urgently needed. 


Owen Espley is Senior Economic Justice Campaigner at War on Want. 


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