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Sorting Things Out

Busy Recycling Plant Worker Finds He Has Plenty of Time to Think


VENTURA — His favorite shifts are when he's assigned cardboard. It's stiff and simple to toss down the chute.

Milk jugs are pretty good too--lightweight, with handles.

But on a recent morning, Jose Ramos is stuck with the job he likes least: newspapers. They are sometimes crumpled, soggy and smelly; other times unread and slippery. They can hide nasty little surprises, like broken glass. They are ubiquitous. They are, in Ramos' opinion, the toughest assignment of all the rotations on the sorting line at Gold Coast Recycling and Transfer Station near Victoria Avenue and the Ventura Freeway.

The 24-year-old Oxnard man is one of 40 sorters among the 110 employees at Gold Coast, one of two large centers in Ventura County where household waste collected through curbside recycling is sorted. The company also handles recyclables from businesses.

Ramos and his co-workers carry out an unglamorous but essential aspect of recycling--an activity civic leaders, environmental activists and celebrities have increasingly touted as something individuals and corporations should do to conserve power and raw materials, reduce pollution and extend the capacity of landfills.

Gold Coast employees generally work 10-hour shifts, said operations manager Steve Lorenzana. They start either at 4 a.m., like Ramos, or at 2 p.m. They work Monday through Saturday, and recently the facility has also operated on Sundays to catch up.

The sorters wear old flannel shirts and gloves up to the elbows, thick ones that protect against most needle pricks or glass splinters. They wear safety glasses, earplugs, hard hats and back braces.

Most are Latino. Many have poor English skills. About half are former fieldworkers who jumped at the chance for a job that's more secure and less physically grueling than picking fruit and vegetables. Ramos was planting celery until getting this job nine months ago.

"What I like about it here is it's constant, rain or shine," Ramos said in Spanish. "You're working every day and the job is never finished."

Sorters are the bottom rung of the recycling hierarchy, earning $6 an hour for the first eight hours they work each day and overtime for the rest.

On the line, sorters are enveloped in a vaguely sour smell, although it's not as pungent as regular trash. Occasionally there's a surprising sweet or fruity whiff, if an unrinsed juice jug or lotion dispenser rolls past.


It isn't the smell that's most punishing. It's the dust--big clouds and swirls and sprays of dust. So the sorters always wear facemasks too.

When you sort, you have to keep your eye on the conveyor belts carrying the sea of what is supposed to be recyclable trash from the ground floor of Gold Coast's open warehouse facility up a roller-coaster-steep slope to a platform high above. Sorters stand on both sides of the belts, picking out what can be recycled and letting the useless rubbish roll on.

Many sorters throw up when they're new on the job, Lorenzana said, not from the stink but from motion sickness they experience watching the belts roll.

The mostly male workers are each assigned a type of material--cardboard, cans, scrap metal, newspaper, plastic bottles, office paper, aluminum or one of three colors of glass--to pluck as the pile of trash rolls by. The guy who pulls green glass from the belt drops it all into a chute exclusively for green glass, and so on.

Below, forklift operators scoop the separated items onto another belt leading to a baler, where the sorted materials are compressed into large cubes weighing 1,000 pounds or more, then tied with wire. These bales are taken to recycling centers anywhere from Port Hueneme to Los Angeles to Japan. Glass isn't compressed but rather transported to centers in boxes.

Meanwhile, a recycling pile that doesn't get picked through well enough on the first run goes up another conveyor belt, where a line of mostly female sorters discards rubbish that can't be reused.

It's tough to hear the voice of the guy next to you, what with the earplugs, the facemasks and the relentless vrooms and clangs of the machinery. So there's not a lot of chatter among the sorters. That means sometimes there's too much time to think.

Ramos said he can usually clear his head, focus on the line and work by instinct. But his mind sometimes drifts to his wife, 2-year-old son, parents and six siblings, all still living in Mexico. With his just-above-minimum-wage salary, he's managing to send some money back to them and visit occasionally. For now, he's living with roommates.

His dream: return to Mexico with enough money to start a business selling clothing and shoes. But getting from A to B can't be totally planned out in one shift, even a 10-hour stretch, so Ramos forces himself to stop thinking about it.

"I turn it off and on," he said.

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