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Waste.Agency: Textile Recycling Picker Working Conditions

Ian Blenkharn waste_mrec_pickingline.jpg

During the Waste.Agency, a senior insurance underwriter explained in great detail why he and his colleagues were refusing to underwrite any more recycling plants. Waste Agency Recycling Insurance Risks Consumption Changes, gives an underwriters account of the concerns of the insurance industry of a future asbestos style class-action by recycle workers against former employers as well as other issues in urgent need of address.

Extract 1 is taken from Doing the ‘dirty work’ of the green economy: Resource recovery and migrant labour in the EU* (Gregson, Crang, et. al), a paper exploring the working conditions of the EU recycling industry, for European Urban and Regional Studies. Sent by Professor Mike Crang, the extract and full paper offers support to underwriters concerns.

Extract 2 is taken from an article by Ian Blenkharn of Blenkharn Environmental, an independent microbiologist with more than 30 years experience outlining some of the potential medical hazards pickers face when working on recycle belt.


1. Textile recycling

Textile recovery is similar to MRFs in that discarded textiles are collected from diverse sources. In the UK this would include recycling banks, charity shops and leftovers from car boot sales that are then brought to recycling plants for processing. The dif- ference, however, is that, even in the UK, textile recycling is a highly labour-intensive process throughout, and shifts in large factories would typi- cally involve over 100 workers at a time. Clothes are first separated by type and then sorted by wear, fibre type, weight, size, age and gender. A series of con- veyor belts pass clothing around a factory, with workers handling, inspecting, assessing and classify- ing items by ‘picking’ them from the belt and then throwing them into the appropriate chutes, pigeon holes, bins or other conveyor belts. These initially classified garments then move round the factory for further assessments by other workers. In such a way classifications are refined and finer grade distinc- tions produced, each one tailored to a market niche – from vintage/retro, to export for reuse, to industrial rags to fibre reclamation (Crang et al., 2013). The sometimes more than 400 resultant grades ensure not only that clothing has a second life, but also that the maximum economic value is extracted from the clothing on the belt, through a variety of reuse and recycling markets.

As with manual work in a municipal MRF, textile recycling is physically demanding. The toll that the work takes on the workers’ bodies is considerable. Allergies to dust are commonplace; so too are skin complaints, for workers in textile recycling plants do not use gloves. Instead, they must rely on haptic, as well as visual, senses to classify what is unpleasant, smelly and often soiled clothing. Workers resort to over-the-counter remedies, such as nasal inhalers, to attend to excessive sneezing and running noses, while many bring additional shoes to alleviate the effects of standing in the same spot for hours on end. As with municipal MRFs, the pay is low: in 2011 in the factory studied, all sorters earned £5.73 per hour, so standard weekly take-home pay amounted to less than £200. Working overtime, at £7 per hour, brought it slightly above £200, which is still less than two- thirds of the UK median wage.

Textile recycling, like much textile work the world over, is gendered as primarily women’s work but, as with other areas of low-paid ‘dirty work’, it is particular women who get to do this work. In the study factory, Russian was the lingua franca, and the women working on the lines mostly came from Eastern Europe, principally Lithuania, Bulgaria and Russia, but not Poland. UK nationals were also nota- ble by their absence, with the floor manager observ- ing that they ‘would be better off on the social’. In previous years, the work force had been dominated by West Africans, by workers from the Caribbean, and before that by workers from Pakistan. In each labour market phase, prevailing ethnicities relate to their perceived knowledge of key international mar- kets in second-hand textiles (c.f. Abimbola, 2012), which are currently West Africa, India and Eastern Europe. Thus, when one textile recycler in the East Midlands was prosecuted for employing 30 illegal immigrants there were 21 Ghanaians, six Indians, two Nigerians and one from Niger (Holder, 2014). Forthefactorystudied,ensuringthatthebestitems get placed on the lines destined for Eastern European markets mattered most, and Eastern Europeans were assumed (by employers) to have unique skills in making these value judgements. Moreover, in this factory such essentialising knowledge connected with internal quality controls, in which employee numbers were placed on Eastern European sorting bags, making individual employees accountable for their grading decisions.

Recruitment to textile recycling factories such as this is largely word-of-mouth. Perhaps surprisingly, labour turnover was not particularly high – at least in the study factory. It was not uncommon here to find workers who had been in this factory for 6 years or even, in one instance, 16. Whilst explanations for inertia from managers would typically suggest that this kind of work was the best that such workers could either do, or hope for, sheer exhaustion and tiredness at the end of each shift ‘lock’ workers into such patterns of work. It is perhaps such working conditions that suggest why reports like Well dressed? The present and future sustainability of clothing and textiles in the United Kingdom (Allwood et al., 2006) speak of the technical possibilities of recycling but make no mention at all of the work involved.


Full paper and references can be found at

N. Gregson, M. Crang, J. Botticello, M. Calestani, Anna Krzywoszynsk, (2014), Doing the ‘dirty work’ of the green economy: Resource recovery and migrant labour in the EU, European Urban and Regional Studies, Published online before print October 30, 2014, doi:10.1177/0969776414554489, Sage Journals {found at}

Image: Ian Blenkharn


2. Sharps injuries in the recycling industries

Bloodborne virus infection is a real concern and discarded needles are not uncommon on pick lines from domestic or community recycling and recovery operations. Loose needles, syringes discarded with plastics waste, needles hidden in drinks cans, even entire sharps containers bounce past the pickers and inevitably bring the line to a standstill until everything is cleared and checked.

Needle-related sharps injuries are common though there is as yet no authoritative estimate of frequency. All this passes largely unnoticed. It is a social and educational problem that is the bane of recycle operators, but that does not mean that it should escape regulation and enforcement.

Full article can be found at

Ian Blenkharn is an independent microbiologist with more than 30 years experience in the NHS and UK Universities focusing on aspects of healthcare and environmental microbiology. He has particular research interests in hospital, occupational and environmental microbiology, healthcare waste management – surgical sepsis and the control of hospital infection, sharps safety and safe bio-hazardous waste management, occupational and environmental hygiene and microbiologyand bio-safety.

Ian is a Fellow of the Society of Biology, of the Royal Society for Public Health, and of the Institute of Biomedical Scientists. He is member of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and a Chartered Waste manager

#wasteagency #tightsprojects #academic

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