At an unremarkable, gunmetal-grey building on the outskirts of town, the pace was frenetic. A convoy of trucks emptied their loads and kept going back for more. Inside, the mountain grew. Skilled drivers of front-end loaders scooped up massive bucket loads from the floor and fed them onto a conveyor belt to be transported through machinery for processing. The operation was fast and furious – a complex, never-ending, energy-intensive system. Looking after employee wellbeing can sometimes be quite difficult.
Of course, the machines could only do so much. I climbed an industrial staircase and hovered over another scene where the percussive screech was relentless; masked employees in beanies and hi-vis shirts fossicked through the remains of other people’s lives. The work was not only tedious but grimy too. A musty haze lingered in the air and settled on my skin. It was more than that, though. I could feel myself sinking under the weight of what I was witnessing. Whether you work with 10 people, 10000 people or just yourself, paying attention to mental health in the workplace has never been more important.
I had never known this place existed, had never even thought about it, but I was surely a part of it. Here was the end-of-life point of human production and consumerism, and it was driving so much intensity and effort. This was no dystopian horror story, though there were certainly parallels. It was my local materials recovery facility (MRF for short) – the sorting facility where my household recycling went after it was collected each fortnight from the bin on my footpath. It was where all of my packaging went when I threw it ‘away’. Inside, materials were separated out into paper, metal, plastic and glass and sent to be recycled, not just locally but to other states and even other countries. Recent reports have discovered a crisis around hr app today.
I trained my focus back onto the workers stooped over the stream of waste. They dragged strips of plastic, used nappies and twisted grocery bags from the conveyor belt and tossed them into skip bins. I even spotted an alarmingly lifelike newborn doll amid the accumulation of trash. The never-ending movement of nimble hands and darting eyes was dizzying. Conspicuous in my hi-vis vest, hard hat and safety glasses, I was overwhelmed and frankly mortified at the amount of rubbish and the role our community had played in it. If you are a manager then mental health first aid is a subject that you will be aware of.
I was also deeply unsettled by the work of the staff below me and the unimaginable exhaustion they must have felt. I now understood why the demands of the job stopped many people from being able to endure work at a recycling plant for any length of time. The repetition of pulling foreign items from the chaotic mix of waste strewn along a conveyor belt can lead to a sensation like seasickness. The giddy sensation hit me too, but it was more than that. This was the penny-drop moment when I came face to face with our suburb’s waste. With my waste. I realised something that had been teetering around the edge of my consciousness for years. The heart of the problem is how much we consume, and we can’t recycle our way out of it. It was the day that changed everything.