Belgium has had household paper and recyclable packaging waste collections for years. The collected refuse was long almost entirely hand-sorted. Sorting centres have recently invested in machinery to automate some operations. Modernisation does not automatically make the job any less gruelling.

An overpowering acrid stench fills the nostrils of the few pedestrians who venture into this inhospitable part of the Brussels south borough of Forest. It comes from the huge "manure heap" formed by the hundreds of thousands of bags of garden waste collected from the European capital’s residents. The smell makes you not want to linger outside the gates of the metropolitan area’s only composting centre in a motorway no man’s land. Ever since the 19th century, noxious human activities have been shunted out to the edge of towns. Slaughterhouses, for example. Waste and recycling – very much a growth industry – is no exception to the rule that jobs – and those that do them – that offend people’s sensibilities get relegated to the outskirts.

A few hundred metres further on, in a shed the size of two football pitches occupied by Recyclis, a hundred RCVs (refuse collection vehicles) a day roll in to dump their valuable payload. Don’t call it rubbish! The tonnes of paper, cardboard and PMC (Plastic, Metal packaging and drinks Cartons) collected door-to-door for twenty-odd years in Belgium, would once have gone for incineration or to landfill but are now a valuable resource for creating a new raw material. But before the soft drink and water bottles are turned into plastic "chaff" used to manufacture duvets and polar fleece clothing, they have to be sorted. That is where Recyclis – a private company whose sole shareholder is the Brussels-Capital Region (population around 1.2 million) – comes in.

Sheep’s head

A six-strong crew working with machine-like precision pull rejects from the endless conveyor which shoots through freesheets and other discarded paper items – a 1980s atlas, some black and white family photos unearthed from an attic – at high speed. Less emotive but more colourful, thousands of plastic bottles bob along a second conveyor where a second crew of six workers has been at it since half past six this morning. On one side of the vast shed, a yellow line – for paper – on the other side, a blue line – for PMCs. The afternoon shifts will take over at three o’clock, and work through till 11.00 at night.

Screwdrivers are removed and put aside. There’s nothing you won’t find in the collection bags. "Some people just dump stuff they want to get rid of cheaply into the bags: bottles of toxic chemicals like white spirit; even dead animals or sheep’s heads", fumes Dicko Boubou, a Recyclis health and safety committee (HSC) rep. Even firearms have apparently been found in the blue bags. Despite public education campaigns in selective sorting, some people still seem unaware that their waste is processed by hand. There’s a risk of workers cutting their hands, and some have had to have hospital treatment for needlestick injuries from hypodermics hidden among the plastic bottles. Pre-sorting is the highest-risk operation, when the plastic bags are ripped open to discard rejects, especially those that might jam the machines.

Two new sorting lines were put in in April 2012 which can automatically remove some items with a magnet and an optical detection system. Previously, all the contents of emptied bags had to be sorted by hand.

While these machines are bringing the sorting industry into "Modern Times" and making some aspects of the job a less thankless task, the work pace is now set by the conveyor, just like the Chaplin film. "There were twelve of us on the old line, now there are just six; work rates have speeded up", says Philippe Boon, also an HSC rep. And the workforce has shrunk from 80 to 58 employees.

And then there’s the dust – everywhere. A thick carpet of the stuff coating the endless pipework of the two lines and literally getting into your throat. "The new paper line pumps out the dust", complains Philippe Boon. "It’s fitted with extractors, but how can you avoid dust with the huge quantities of materials processed? And the extractors make a real racket."

Since the new lines started up, the workers have been having hearing problems. "We’re all going deaf", warns HSC rep Gregory De Bool. It’s a worrying development – the new lines have only been in service less than two years. "The occupational doctor had a laboratory do measurements which found very high noise levels", reports Spero Houmey, the FGTB (central federation for manual workers) official for the waste sector.

Management knows there is a problem and is willing to find a solution to minimise the causes of harm, but singles out the machine manufacturer. "The machine is still under warranty. We’ll see with the manufacturer if the noise can be cut down. Each machine on its own meets the standards for noise, but the problem is when they’re all going at once. The building being all sheet metal and right by the motorways don’t help matters. But workers also have to wear their earplugs", said Philip Robinet, chief operating officer since 2012. As for the dust, Mr Robinet says that the workers have been provided with masks and recent measurements by a laboratory have shown that the dust standards were being met.

Health records

Outside the shed, forklift drivers are loading bales of compressed PMC onto a trailer. A PMC bale weighs about 300 kg; a bale of paper/ cardboard up to 800 kg. So safety awareness is key. Happily, serious work accidents are rare, claims the chief operating officer, backed up by the shop stewards’ committee. This is why the workers’ representatives on the HSC have decided to focus their efforts on work-related diseases. Besides the noise and dust problems already mentioned, the Recyclis workers also suffer from musculoskeletal disorders – as do nearly a third of all European workers. The forklift drivers get back, shoulder and neck pains, while sorters suffer from tendinitis, back and leg pains – obviously, for they are on their feet all day.

Assisted by the occupational doctor, the shop stewards’ committee plans to create a record for each worker containing full information on any work-related health problems and their development throughout working life. The record would be made available to the family doctor who would be the only one apart from the occupational doctor and worker to have access to it. Occupational health usually tends to be a no-go area for general practice; it is also true that few GPs concern themselves with it and think about their patients’ working conditions, so the FGTB decided to support the unique approach of the Recyclis trade unionists.

At this juncture, the concern is less how management will receive the initiative – "it’s a firm you can talk to", acknowledge the union reps – than the decisions taken at a higher level.

"The regional authorities have decided to reorganize recyclable waste collection through a system of communal wheelie bins without consulting the workers who process that waste", laments Spero Houmey. The union official fears that the quality of waste collected will go down. "The authorities play up the sector’s economic vigour, but are completely disregarding health issues, and forgetting that the bottom line is that sorting’s done by peo-ple", fumes the union official•.

Special report - Waste and recycling: workers at risk

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"The bottom line is that sorting’s done by people"

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