My Trash: How a Can Ties Me to Labor Disputes and Municipal Politics

This is my fifth article on the waste that I generate.  Please see the “Waste” category link for the others.  This time, I’m not going to talk about environmental issues.  This time, I’m going to talk about labor, the people to who deal with my trash with their own hands and noses.  These people are part of my community.  Or maybe they’re not.  Regardless, I exist in relationship to them through my consumption and by throwing stuff away.  When I throw something away, I must think not only of the ever-filling landfill or pollutants leaking from it into the Delaware River, but also of the impact of my consumption on the people who carry away my trash.

Our municipalities used to take care of our trash.  So the workers were city or county employees.  They were managed, ultimately, by the people we elected to our town councils.  Waste disposal was a public service.  Many cities and towns continue to provide this service.  But the number is declining after years of privatization, although some municipalities have actually reverted back to public waste disposal.

Smaller municipalities have found that private companies can handle their waste disposal cheaper than if they did it themselves.  That makes sense; a small town would find it pretty expensive to maintain all of its own equipment for so few residents, while a private company could have the same amount of equipment and serve several towns.  But larger municipalities, larger than 25,000 according to this article, find that they save money doing the job themselves.  I live in a municipality of 45,000 people, but Waste Management, a private company, handles my waste.  They are the largest trash company in America.

But it isn’t just economies of scale that makes private trash collection cheaper for smaller communities.  Waste Management, for example, pays its workers less than municipalities pay comparable workers and provide a more dangerous work environment than do municipalities.  WM workers have been going on strike across the country over the last few years in response to cuts in their retirement, abuse of immigrant workers, and failure to honor or negotiate contracts.  The good news: lots of these workers are unionized, giving them small say over their working conditions.  You can read about Waste Management’s political and criminal activities, government subsidies, and safety record here.

Where does this leave me?  What is my relationship to these workers?  Does throwing something away or not throwing it away affect them?  Probably not.  But being mindful of my waste may include me paying attention to labor disputes, Waste Management’s corporate lobbying, and how my municipality deals with contracts to WM.  Whether I am aware of it or not, whether I care or not, through my trash, I have a relationship with these men and women.  I’m already involved.

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