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The Risks and Rewards of Recycling

The risks and rewards of recycling


According to the Municipal Solid Water (MSW) site1, Americans generated 251 million tons of trash in 2012. While 53.8% of it was discarded in landfills and 11.7% was combusted for energy, 34.5% of it was recycled or composted and that includes 96% of all lead-acid batteries that were recovered and about 70% of newspaper/mechanical papers recycled.

There’s no doubt that recycling benefits us all and our environment. Recycling helps to conserve natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. According to the EPA, recycling one ton of aluminum cans saves the energy equivalent of 36 barrels of oil or 1,655 gallons of gasoline.

Recycling includes three basic steps: collecting the recyclables, processing and manufacturing of new products from the recyclables and ultimately the purchasing of these new products made from recycled materials. Many products today -- including newspapers and paper towels; aluminum, plastic and glass soft drink containers; steel cans; and plastic laundry detergent bottles -- are manufactured with recycled content. And recycled materials are also being used in new ways such as recovered glass in asphalt to pave roads or recovered plastic in carpeting, park benches and residential fences.

Recyclers’ Risks

As more of us look to recycle more of our waste, the recycling industry continues to grow, at a rate of approximately 12.4% annually. Working in the recyclable area is now ranked in the top ten of the most dangerous jobs in America, along with loggers, fishers, aircraft pilots, roofers, structural iron and steel workers, electrical power-line installers and repairers, truck drivers, farmers and construction workers. Recycling companies face a wide range of risks and hazards from ergonomic risks to those picking up the recyclables to the risk management of storing, processing and manufacturing the end products.

While more companies’ use of automated trucks have contributed to these better safety numbers, it takes more than a few state-of-the-art trucks to achieve good safety statistics. Companies need to take continuous control measures to maintain reasonable workers compensation and health insurance rates, lost work time and worker replacement cost expenses. Attention to safety precautions – especially on the most some of the simplest tasks – can’t be overlooked. That’s because the biggest causes of the more expensive workplace injuries result are not from accidents but from fairly typical routine activities – like lifting and pushing, which are still the number one cause of on-the-job injuries in the waste industry.

Back Injuries, which are often the result of improper lifting, are one of the most prevalent and costly work-related injuries in the US, averaging nearly $8500 per workers compensation claim, approximately double the cost of the average injury claim. Back injuries cost US businesses between $50 and $100 billion per year. So quite simply, implementing practical ergonomic solutions – to help employees prevent back injuries -- can help companies save time and money with surprisingly little time and investment.

Correcting safety exposures starts with taking a practical look at the way things are done. Through an ergonomics task analysis, recyclers are able to examine how tasks are performed and determine the actions that can put unnecessary stress on tendons, joints, nerves or muscles that, in turn, can result in injuries. Ergonomic analysis help pinpoint potential problem areas known to result in injuries, such as:
• Excessive Repetitiveness: An employee’s risk of developing an ergonomic disorder, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, increases as the repetitiveness of a task increases.

Too Much Energy: Overexertion is the excessive use of energy to perform a task that can lead to back problems. The speed with which an employee moves arms, wrists and fingers can also be an indicator of potential ergonomic stress.

In One Position Too Long: Sitting for a long period of time is an example of static loading. Extended work periods can increase the risk of cumulative trauma disorders.

Bad Posture: Extreme deviations from neutral body posture increase safety risks.

The ‘Wrong’ Equipment: The ‘right’ equipment may mean adjustable seating, foot stools, tools with longer handles, floor mats, back belts, or other equipment depending on the workplace and what’s required of its workforce.

Too Little Training: It’s important to educate or reminder employees on proper lifting methods, posture, and even the importance of taking some time away from a task.

Curbside Safety

Additionally, many recyclers offer their customers trash containers designed for a more ideal collection system. These containers have specially designed hands for better grasping that encourages power grips and neutral wrist positions. Another strategy that has helped companies reduce employees’ bending and lifting activities is to promote bulk recycling pickup. This typically requires a bigger collection can which requires less bending or mechanical lifting during pickup.

As waste company tasks rely on customers and how they place their trash for pick up, customer education is another strategy for a safer workplace. Educating customers through hand-outs and flyers outlining your efforts to improve employee safety may encourage customers to improve their disposal practices. That means that each of us who participate in curbside recycling programs can help our recycling companies reduce potential injuries.

Recyclers are finding new and creative ways to improve their operational efficiencies and in turn, provide a safer work environment. Improving safety through education, communication and training needs to be as much of a habit for recycling companies as recycling is for more and more US households. By reducing the risks associated with recycling, both recyclers and their customers will reap more rewards.



Working in the recyclable area is now ranked in the top ten of the most dangerous jobs in America, along with loggers, fishers, aircraft pilots, roofers, structural iron and steel workers, electrical power-line installers and repairers, truck drivers, farmers and construction workers.


Be Careful with Contracts

Poor contract practices leave recyclers and other waste companies vulnerable to risks too.  A contract is the best line of defense in assuring that a recycler or any waste company is not held liable for something they did not intend to provide or a quality of service that could not possibly be delivered.  Yet too many companies do not spend nearly enough time managing contract risks. 

Ideally, companies should develop their own standard contract or terms and conditions and attempt to use them for each project or client.  Although many clients insist on using their own contract form and that requires extra precautions of waste firms. Client-generated contracts need to be examined closely because they often contain clauses that can cause as many problems as just relying on a verbal agreement.  

Many client-generated contracts contain a broad-form indemnification clause that requires a waste or recycling company to indemnify the client for its own negligence.  Another problem area for waste firms is ‘standard of practice’ language, which may include words like "warranty" or "guarantee" or phrases such as "highest standard of practice." As a provider of waste or recycling services, companies are best to avoid offering warranties. Accepting such clauses and phrases increases potential liability, holding the firm to standards that are difficult to achieve.  Instead, a waste firm’s work should be judged by the acceptable standard of practice that exists at the time that the services are offered. 

Because of the increased risks of signing client-generated contracts, a company should have specific review requirements. And as most managers have had little or no contract review training, contract review training is an important part of a company’s overall risk management program.  And when a manager comes across any unfamiliar language, he or she should know when to seek review by legal counsel. 

Contract Components

The dictionary states that a contract is "an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of some definite thing." Whether a company decides to develop its own contract form or use the standard contract forms available, it’s important to note that to be considered binding, a contract -- whether verbal or written -- must meet the following five criteria:.

  • Agreement - The parties to the contract must come to a "meeting of the minds" whereby one party will provide goods or services and the other party accepts the goods or services for a fee or consideration.
  • Fee or Consideration - Something of value must be exchanged between the two parties. The fee could be a certain dollar amount, or the services could be provided for the consideration of some goods, such as two cows and a chicken.
  • Legally Enforceable - The conditions of the contract must be legally enforceable in the jurisdiction where the contract is applicable. For example, in some states indemnification language is not enforceable due to anti-indemnity statutes.
  • Competent Parties - The signatories to the contract must be mentally competent and not impaired by insanity or intoxication. The signatories also must be authorized to sign contracts by their respective companies. Typically, company officers or other specifically authorized personnel can sign contracts.
  • Legal Purpose - The contract must be for a legal purpose. A consultant who is not a licensed P.E. and signs a contract for providing professional engineering services would be signing an illegal contract.
  • Without the benefit of a binding contract, recyclers and other waste companies leave themselves vulnerable to additional liability and financial losses not to mention lost  time used to settle a contract dispute.

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