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‘We Are Not Garbage’: Troubling Working Conditions In Los Angeles’ Waste And Recycling Plants

Los Angeles is the second largest waste market in the United States, and it has a problem.

In a short film by Cuéntame, an online collective of short documentary films and interviews that documents the lives and stories of U.S. Latinos, the camera turns to the Latino workers who sort our trash and takes aim at American Reclamation, Inc., a family owned recycling company that was cited with 36 safety violations by the California Department of Industrial Relations’ (DIR) Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) last month.

Exposed to syringes, needles, rotten meat and toxic chemicals, waste workers have “one of the highest injury and illness rates in California.”

“I thought they were going to provide us with training on safety and protection. But when I started it was completely the opposite,” says Karla, an ex-employee at American Reclamation, in the short video. “They simply put you to work out there without any training.”

While the city’s households and small apartment buildings are serviced by city workers who maintain the largest trash collection system in the nation, businesses and large apartment buildings must hire privately owned waste haulers who enjoy free reign of their practices. Regulations around waste sorting and hauling do not exist at the city level.

In an article about the debate over the city’s trash industry in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Arsenian, a supervisor of family-owned City Terrace Recycling in East Los Angeles says, “This proposal looks to take business away from many and give it into the hands of a few large companies who are aligned with the union. That will cause many jobs to vanish. I would have to cut staff here.”

According to a report by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an advocacy organization that promotes issues of poverty, inadequate health care and polluted communities, “Los Angeles will not meet its environmental goals without dramatically transforming its waste collection system for businesses and large apartment complexes.”