The Dangers of Working in Waste

SUST co-founder and former Roosevelt University professor Carl Zimring, now professor of sustainability studies at the Pratt Institute in NYC, published this powerful op-ed in the Friday 2/9 online edition of the NY Times. In his essay, “A Waste Worker Dies Every Day,” Zimring links the ever-present hazards faced by waste industry front-line workers — still one of America’s most dangerous ways to make a living — with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and the ongoing quest for environmental and racial justice in our country. We repost the first and last sections of the op-ed here.

On a Saturday morning in 2013 in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, an 18-year-old recycling worker, Luis Camarillo, was loading materials into a truck when the vehicle’s compactor crushed him. He was rushed to a hospital, where he died.

Mr. Camarillo’s death, while seemingly a freak accident, was in fact not unusual: In the United States, a sanitation worker is killed every day.

The hazards facing people in this line of work have a long history — they inspired the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. That walkout was set off in part by the deaths of two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by the hydraulic press of the truck they were riding on one rainy winter evening.

The strike, whose organizers demanded higher pay, the recognition of the workers’ union and safer working conditions, is often associated with the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis the day after delivering his “Mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. But when we think about the strike, we should also remember that half a century after his death, the work Dr. King was focused on in the last days of his life remains unfinished. A ProPublica investigation published in January detailed the grueling and unsafe working conditions faced by many of today’s private waste-management workers, who risk their lives daily for very little pay.

Zimring concludes his essay thus:

Fifty years after the Memphis strike, workers continue to risk their lives across the United States to handle garbage and recycling. The solution in 1968 was collective bargaining, and it is the solution today as well. The higher wages, safer equipment and health coverage provided to the employees in the public garbage hauling sector show what is possible. Negotiating collective bargaining agreements will reduce the risks that killed Mr. Camarillo, and Mr. Cole and Mr. Walker before him.

At the conclusion of his final speech, Dr. King asked, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” It’s time to ask that question again.

To read the essay in its entirety, see this link on the NY Times website:

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1 Response to The Dangers of Working in Waste

  1. Greg Mucci says:

    Good post!

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