On Friday morning, Noel Tucker — gloved, masked, and dressed in an apron and hard hat — attacked the refuse stream rolling by her on a fast-moving conveyor belt, pulling out plastic bags and loose plastic films, and tossing them into a metal bin by her side. She’s a sorter at San Francisco’s Recology recycling center. And while most of the city’s residents are hunkered down in their homes, keeping clear of the coronavirus that has infected more than 1 million people worldwide, thousands of waste sorters, haulers, mechanics and engineers are getting up every morning and leaving their homes — putting themselves at risk to keep California’s towns and cities clean.
“These people are warriors,” said Robert Reed, Recology’s spokesman, as he showed a reporter around the bustling plant — a site of determined activity in a city that largely feels and appears abandoned. Turner’s job, hazardous during normal times — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is the nation’s fifth-most-dangerous occupation — now carries a new level of risk.
Seven vending machines near the entrance to the recycling plant hold protective gear, such as glasses, masks and gloves. Employees enter a code, and a spiral dispenser pushes the item forward and drops it down, where workers, such as Ben Carter, who demonstrated for a visitor, can retrieve it. Carter said he preferred vending machines with food but was happy to have the gear he needed to keep protected as he and colleagues process the 650 tons of waste San Franciscans send his way, every day.