By Hannah Diamond

Why You Should Watch This:

Every American produces garbage. The issue of what happens to this waste is relevant to all of us. Before watching this video, it had never occurred to me that waste plant workers in the U.S. are encountering human rights abuses on a daily basis. Through sharing the stories of those who work in recycling plants, this video  seeks to change this ignorance and advocate for better working conditions.

This video, We Are Not ‘Garbage’, exposes the inhumane conditions that workers in waste and recycling plants face in Los Angeles. Viewers learn that workers are paid below subsistence wages, often develop health issues as a result of their work, and are often punished for speaking out.  The video serves as an educational tool and highlights direct actions that viewers can take to advocate for the rights of the workers.

This video is produced by Don’t Waste LA, a coalition of nearly 30 diverse organizations in LA, including Clergy and Laity for United for Economic Justice, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, Green LA Coalition and various unions.

  • Title: We are Not ‘Garbage’
  • Date Created/Posted: May 11 2012
  • Length: 4:57 mins
  • Who made it:  Cuentame and the Don’t Waste LA Coalition
  • Location: Los Angeles, California
  • Human Rights Issues: the rights and treatment of workers at waste and recycling plants in Los Angeles 


Goal: We Are Not ‘Garbage’ has two main goals. The first is to explain the problem.  Many U.S. residents are unaware of the abuses that are occurring among waste and recycling workers, let alone the severity. The video aims to give a voice to the workers at recycling plants in LA. A variety of personal stories and facts about the industry are used to show the breadth of people and communities affected by this  specific issue.

The video is also an advocacy tool. Using the voices and stories of waste pickers/workers, the video demonstrates the lack of accountability of recycling companies, the unsafe  conditions of workers, and the danger workers who attempt to speak out face. The video ends with the contact information of elected officials in LA and the name of the campaign,  encouraging people to get involved and contact their local officials.  Cuentame, which hosts the video, has additional information on which local officials to contact, which recycling and waste companies are the worst offenders, and the opportunity to sign a petition.


Primary Audience: This video was created for residents of the Los Angeles metropolitan area​​. The main goal of the movement is for city officials to legislate change. In terms of education, the video is aimed at everyone. The video shares stories of men and women from various ages to appeal to all demographics.


Message: The main message of the video is that workers in  recycling plants in Los Angeles work in unhealthy and unsafe conditions for very little money with no job security and can face severe punishment for attempting to stand up for their rights.


Content/Style/Voices: The video is almost exclusively told through personal stories. The stories range from a woman who was injured on the job and unable to work, to people discussing how their children, family members and friends have dealt with the poor conditions, bad treatment, low wages, lack of job security and health problems that are associated with waste treatment work in Los Angeles.

The video uses music and image to highlight the seriousness of the issue. Ominous music plays in the background, and the camera flashes from the faces of the storytellers to overflowing landfills, to the warning signs that surround these plants. Though in certain situations, the heightened music and imagery would appear over the top, in this video these stylistic choices help lend emotion to a video that is mainly people speaking.


Did you know? Los Angeles sends 2.5 million tons of waste to landfills each year.  Don’t Waste LA is seeking to lower that number, and increase green jobs. It is also working to ensure accountability and fair labor practices in the waste and recycling industry as well as city-wide reform for commercial and multi-family waste. Don’t Waste LA uses video as part of their larger campaign to convince Los Angeles city leaders to put more money and effort into revamping the city’s waste  systems.

In 2008 WITNESS partnered with Chintan, a Delhi based organization that supports wastepickers and waste recyclers’ rights. Like in LA, wastepickers in India work in dangerous and unhealthy situations for little money. WITNESS hosted video advocacy trainings with the activists and with Chintan co-produced Counterbalance, a video advocating for the rights of the waste pickers.


Suggested Resources:

Visit for information about  or to get involved with the Don’t Waste LA campaign or for information about the Cuentame campaign.

Visit the WITNESS website to watch Counterbalance.


Hannah Diamond is a development intern with WITNESS. She recently graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in politics. She has also worked as a political and community organizer and an anti-death penalty activist.

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