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I Love Lucy Meets Blade Runner

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Imagine your neighbor, your neighbor’s neighbor and their neighbor . . . plus the most disgusting fast-food joint you can envision (Grade C in the window), the nearest gas station, the local pet store and an auto repair shop to boot.

Now, imagine all their trash coming at you on an endless conveyor belt – faster than chocolates on I Love Lucy .

Your job:  to dig in and pull out the recyclables.

Thousands of workers, often immigrant Latinas, do this all day, every day, at material recovery facilities (MRFs) across Southern California.  Many of these MRFs are grim, post-apocalyptic jalopy buildings that would have been perfect as sets for Blade Runner.

The workers are called “sorters,” and they’re at the front line of a shadow industry that desperately needs to be reigned in.  They sort and sort and sort . . . under incredible pressure and amidst horrendous smells, noise and health hazards.

When we first started looking at this industry, I spoke with a sorter named Josephina who works at a facility just outside L.A.  She told me and a group of colleagues that she received only one surgical mask per week (to protect her from gases, dust and particulates), no ear-plugs…and one pair of gloves that she was expected to clean at home every night.  The gloves she cleaned were regularly poked and pricked with needles and nails, and immersed in everything from blood to carcasses to human feces.  After 12 years of dealing with these conditions she made minimum wage, and had no health care or benefits.

Josephina and her co-workers improved their situation dramatically by organizing and joining the Teamsters.  As obvious as it would seem, they now get new gloves or masks whenever they ask. They also have health care benefits and higher wages.  Unfortunately, they remain the exception. Thousands of sorters still toil in these trash sweatshops.

As the city contemplates the future of its waste system, these folks have to be part of the conversation.  It ain’t just waste haulers and landlords who have a stake in the outcome . . .

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