We Hoard Your Stuff: 5 Truths Of Professional Recycling
The wonder of the modern world is that all of your worst, smelliest waste -- from moldy old Chinese food to actual turds -- just neatly disappears from your life the moment you discard it. And with recycling, well that's even more magical. Much like a phoenix, your trash is reborn ... except, rather than a badass fire bird, what magically flies back to you is a new case for your iPhone or, like, napkins or some shit. And you never have to see any of the gross steps in between!
Well, if you're thinking that the actual job of recycling is probably a rich tapestry of horrific nightmares, you're right! We talked to one of the guys who has to manually pick through your leavings, and he says ...
You People Recycle Some Seriously Fucked-Up Stuff
Over the years, "single-stream recycling" seems to have been translated into "throw everything, ever, into the recycling and let the robots at the plant sort it out." Newsflash: There are no robots at the plant. There are merely people like me, sorting through that shit with our hands. And, luckily for the future of mankind, I am not a metal endoskeleton surrounded by living tissue.
So first of all, for the love of all that is good and holy (also, my work gloves), do not put things that are drenched in your bodily fluids in the recycling bin. Piss-soaked bed liners and used diapers and, holy shit, bloody tampons just end up going to the landfill via a more roundabout route. I suppose I can understand the mindset -- not knowing any better, people assume everything under the Sun can be crapped in, cleansed with fire, and then reused. I hate to say it, but that's just not how it works.
If you're not willing to wipe it clean and use it again, what makes you think we will?
Also, I live in an area where hunting is big, so I must add this: hunters, don't recycle your deer corpses. But even those aren't as nightmare-inducing as the two dead kittens I saw the other day, or the trash bag my co-worker ripped open to discover a litter of puppies. So before you toss whatever you're holding into the recycling bin, please ask yourself, "Is this going to result in a hefty therapy bill for the next person who has to pick it up?"
Grandma deserves a better fate than becoming a bar of Irish Spring.
When I dig into a pile of garbage to pull out a plastic bag and I draw back one of the following, you're doing recycling wrong: a handsaw, a meat cleaver, various kitchen knives, dead fish, '70s porn, guns, barbed wire, lawn mower blades, engine blocks ... I could go on and on, all of them examples of things that have crossed my path.
Besides, not even the most creative recycler could improve on that mustache.
And I get it -- it's difficult to figure out if something's recyclable or not. It has some paper in it, or it has some plastic in it -- it can be recycled into something, right? It's just not that simple, even for those of you who are trying to do it right. For example, plastic bags are recyclable, but they're only recycled at the appropriate facilities. We are not one of those facilities. Most grocery stores have bins in the front of the store to collect bags so they go to the proper places. Use those. For bags, I mean. Don't throw an animal corpse in there.
We Hoard All Your Discarded Stuff
We used to have a Shelf of Shame, where we retrieved and displayed sex toys of all shapes and sizes like bizarre dildo trophies (oh yes, people recycle those). Sadly, we had to take it down because schools visit the facility to teach kids about recycling ... but that only means we relocated them to a less-conspicuous spot. Just know that, when you finally build up the nerve to run your stealth mission to salvage your dad's dignity by discarding that life-size King Kong dong you scarringly discovered stashed in your mom's nightstand as a child, it will most assuredly end up as some recycling worker's most prized possession. So at least give it a good washing first, I guess is what I'm asking.
Although, with some effort, it's possible anything could have been someone's sex toy.
Other times we'll find perfectly good clothing or toys or cool candle holders on the line, and with a little bit of TLC (plus an assload of bleach), that stuff's as good as new. And we get to keep whatever we find, including money -- people have made decent cash purely by working in a lucky spot, like some kind of trash-based lotto. Occasionally a wallet tumbles down the line and, since we are honest trash-pickers, we turn those in unmolested. Well, unmolested except for laughing at your stupid driver's license photo.
Are you turning your nose up at the idea of taking other people's trash home? Come work here for a while. This job will make even the most elitist snob crack under the pressure of so much stuff. "What? Somebody threw that in the trash?" We decorate the shop with some of the stuff we find, and so much junk builds up on the shelves and walls that our boss has to demand we get rid of it.
This job turns us into hoarders, obsessed with "rescuing" treasures it seems criminal to throw away -- eyeless My Little Pony figures, spent video games, broken dolls, you name it. At any given time on the line, doll pieces might rain down like the world's teensiest dismemberment victims, and you can bet your ass someone will be collecting a bucketful of them like a goddamned serial killer. We can't help it.
Poor Rainbow Dash didn't want to play a game.
As Bad As You Think It Smells, It's Actually Much Worse
I know what you're thinking: We're dealing with almost-garbage, for crying out loud. Of course it stinks. Besides, you've smelled a dumpster before -- you can guess what it's like.
No, no you can't. You can't grasp the stench of the enormous bales of unwashed and congealing milk bottles that linger in the building, waiting to be loaded up and sold to other facilities. When you first walk into the building each morning, there is a distinct, sweet yet rancid, assy smell. This first smell eventually becomes bearable as your olfactory receptors convince your taste buds to go on labor strike. However, since our job consists of standing next to a conveyor belt that steadily brings us ever new and ever grosser stuff to sort through (more on that in a moment), we're the lucky audience in a perpetual parade of stench.
It took an hour to convince the claw to dig in there.
Eventually, trying to guess what it is you're smelling becomes a game to break up the monotony. Is that human poop or horse poop? Is that rotting meat or leftover broccoli? (Believe it or not, the rotting vegetables smell worse than the spoiled meat.) It's like Name That Tune, if Name That Tune were conceived by Oscar the Grouch and hosted by Pinhead.
And if every answer were "Ballad Of The Fermented Cow Assholes."
There are small windows of relief, here and there. Detergent bottles. Febreze bottles. Cans of Glade. Bottles of baby powder, which I purposely squeeze and shake all over myself just to gain a brief respite from being a walking vomit inducer. Have you ever stood next to "that smelly guy" in public? Did you give him "the look"? Be honest. Well, I'm that guy if -- heaven forbid -- I have to go anywhere after work.
When Things Go Wrong, They Go Hilariously, Dangerously Wrong
My first week on the job, we fired up the line and soon realized that there weren't many bottles coming down to us on the conveyor belt. Now, one of the most common solutions on this job is, "If it doesn't seem to be working, kick up the speed on the belt." To give you an idea of how fast these things move, in one hour we can average 16 to 24 tons of material. That's the weight of a dozen passenger cars, each hour.
So they sped up the line. Still nothing. Finally, we halted the line to see what was going on. It turns out one of the automatic doors had jammed, then subsequently blown out because of all the recycling building up behind it. That means we had been steadily creating a pile of shit in the back of the building. "Pile" is an insufficient word -- I mean a massive, floor-to-ceiling Mount Detritus. It was positively hilarious (until we had to clean it up).
It contained almost as much trash as Everest.
Fuck-ups aren't always of the knee-slapping variety, however. This job is one of the most dangerous out there, because when things go wrong, someone generally ends up minus a limb. Thankfully I've never seen that happen, but I've seen close calls. For example, there's a certain spot on the cardboard line where stuff tends to get jammed when coming off of the "screens." I have "screens" in sarcasm quotes because they're really rows of huge spinning metal teeth capable of destroying everything you know and love:
I bet you never realized a machine could look so hungry.
The purpose of the screen is to sort the recycling by weight -- heavier items like aluminum and plastic fall through and go off to the plastics line, while the paper gets separated and continues onward. One morning, someone tripped the emergency stop for some reason or another, and the person manning the cardboard screen took the opportunity to climb up on the belt and unclog it. Then somebody fired the line back up. After a few screams worthy of a horror movie heroine, they shut it back down. He was fine, but one second's difference in the timing ...
I should note that the guy was later fired for popping downers and nodding off on the line. So I guess, in the end, it was for the best that he no longer works on gigantic, growling, blood-hungry machinery.
The Job Causes Vomiting And Hallucinations
The warning my boss gave me when I first climbed up to the line was, "Hope you don't get motion sickness. The shortest quitting time on record is 15 minutes after a good puke."
He was talking about the sense of vertigo caused by staring at the constant motion of the belt as it's whipping the garbage past you. The moment they fired it up, I immediately felt like I was comprehensively shitfaced. I was able to adjust, but the belts in each section of the facility run at different speeds and different directions, so you're starting all over the moment you switch jobs. Sometimes puking is involved. Actually, puking is almost always involved. Not everybody can hack it. It's nothing to go through six new people in a single month. One guy manned it through six solid hours of his insides becoming outsides before he walked out.
What he left behind technically counted as a recycled breakfast.
But if he'd stayed? He'd have found out this shit gets bizarre. You see, some combination of the motion, noise, and weird smells in this place forms a cloud of sensory input makes you start ... seeing things.
For the first few days on the job, my world actually became a blur of weird side effects. Walking was a challenge, and standing up straight was downright Sisyphean. I found myself shouting just to hear my own voice over the buzzing in my head. I was standing at a sharp angle to keep from falling off of what my head was telling me was a moving floor, and when that snowballed with the fumes and the constant hum of loud equipment, I began experiencing strange and vivid hallucinations. My first day, I kept seeing a woman in an exercise leotard doing jumping jacks out of the corner of my eye.
The worst part was having to spend the better part of two lunch breaks convincing her to let me out of an imaginary gym membership.
Then, once I'd gotten used to the belt and had been moved around to different stations to get a feel for different jobs, I spotted a faceless man in a bright yellow hoodie standing near the railing, looking down at me as I worked. At first I thought it was my boss checking on my progress ... but then I noticed that the man was hovering a few feet away from the railing.
Now, some members of our crew wear bright yellow hoodies (myself included), but we all tend to have faces. And as far as I know, none of us have any mutant hovering abilities (though that does seem like the type of thing one might keep secret). So during a break, I sprung the question about seeing anything ... unusual to one of my co-workers, and here's the kicker: He had seen Yellow Hoodie Guy too. Wandering around on the line, idly floating 12 feet above the forklift floor, walking through the plastic line. Basically, your run-of-the-mill dead person shit.
He seemed pretty happy -- in heaven you probably can't smell shit.
Apparently, either someone needs to sponsor a case study on the shroom-like effects of the constant barrage of motion, overwhelming smells, and ear-splitting noise of a recycling facility, or our facility is way overdue for a visit from the Scooby Doo gang. I lean more toward the first option because, well, who the fuck would want to haunt this place?
Jason is an editor for Cracked. His Facebook page contains 80 percent post-consumer content.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Horrifying Things Only Garbagemen Know About Your Town and 4 Scary Things You Only See Cutting People's Power As A Job.