Recycling/Refuse Operative

The Job and What's Involved

Recycling/refuse operatives collect domestic, industrial and commercial waste and take it away for recycling or disposal. Materials that can be recycled include paper, glass, plastics, metals and textiles.

Operatives usually work in a team of one driver and several loaders. Each team is allocated an area to cover and keeps to a schedule, going out to a particular part of their area on a specific day of the week. On that day, householders and business owners put out their waste and recycling materials in an agreed location ready for collection.


  • Walk ahead of the collection vehicle, moving the bin bags, dustbins, wheelie bins and recycling containers to the edge of the pavement.
  • Help members of the public who are unable to take containers to the kerbside.
  • Give directions and hand signals to the driver to help manoeuvre the vehicle.
  • Walk alongside the vehicle, wheeling the bins to the back, and attaching them to a lifting and tipping mechanism.
  • Carry bin bags to the back of the vehicle and throw them in.
  • Inspect recycling materials for any contamination.
  • Sort recyclables from boxes at the kerbside into special vehicles.
  • Operate the controls at the back of the vehicle to crush the rubbish.
  • Take each bin and container back to its correct position, making sure no litter has been spilt.
  • Leave replacement bin bags at properties.
  • Promote and educate members of the public about the recycling scheme and how it operates.
  • Help in the unloading of waste at the disposal facility.
  • Report any accidents or incidents.


  • Carry out routine maintenance checks on the vehicle before setting out.
  • Drive the vehicle appropriately and, keeping pace with the loaders, stop frequently.
  • Stop the crushing mechanism at once in case of emergency.
  • Drive the vehicle to the transfer station, treatment plant, materials recycling facility or landfill site and unload the waste.
  • Record details of any properties where collection has been unable to take place and the reasons for this.
  • Report any accidents or incidents.
  • In many cases, supervise the team of loaders.

There are also some specialist or non-routine tasks that may require extra training. These include picking up bulky items of waste, such as old furniture or washing machines.

Recycling/refuse operatives usually work from Monday to Friday, but may have occasional weekend or public holiday work. They start work early in the morning and usually finish mid-afternoon. Overtime is often available.

Loaders work outdoors in all weather conditions. In winter, they start the day working in the dark. There is a lot of walking, heavy lifting and carrying required, sometimes of awkwardly shaped items. Collectors have to be aware of the risk of injury, e.g. from sharp objects, such as broken glass.

The work can be dirty, smelly and dusty, and there is a risk of coming into contact with rats and other vermin. Loaders and drivers are provided with safety clothing, safety boots, gloves and waterproofs.

Drivers operate from their cabs for most of the time, apart from when they visit disposal sites.

Loaders may earn from around £11,000 to £18,000 a year.
A driver may earn £15,000 to £20,000 a year and supervisors and managers may earn between £17,000 and £25,000, or more.

Earnings may be increased through bonuses and overtime payments.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 110,000 people employed in the waste management industry in England. Refuse collection is usually the responsibility of local councils. Some employ their own recycling/refuse operatives. Others contract the work out to waste management companies. There is more work in towns and cities than in rural areas.

More specialised jobs are available in companies that deal with dangerous waste, such as acids and other chemicals, or biological waste from hospitals.

Vacancies may be advertised in local newspapers, Jobcentre Plus offices and local authority job bulletins. They may also be advertised on the internet on websites such as (for local government vacancies) and those of waste management companies - see for a list of such companies.

Education and Training

No qualifications are needed to become a recycling/refuse operative, but employers usually require applicants to have basic communication and numeracy skills. Applicants need to be physically fit and active. For health and safety reasons, the minimum age for entry is usually 18 years.

To become a driver, individuals need a large goods vehicle (LGV) licence, which can be obtained from age 18. It may be possible to obtain the licence through an Apprenticeship or Advanced Apprenticeship in Driving Goods Vehicles. An Apprenticeship for waste operatives is currently being developed.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work, Careers Wales; and for Northern Ireland contact

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Initial training is usually carried out at the refuse collection depot by supervisors. It covers practical aspects, such as attaching bins to the collection vehicle and operating the crushing mechanism. It also includes health and safety, safety awareness, manual handling, protective equipment, handling needles and customer service.

Recycling/refuse operatives can work towards qualifications, such as:

- NVQ Levels 1 and 2 in waste management operations
- NVQ Levels 1 and 2 in recycling operations

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A loader should:

  • Be physically fit and have stamina.
  • Be strong enough to lift and carry heavy bins and sacks.
  • Have a responsible attitude to hygiene and health and safety.
  • Work well in a team.
  • Work quickly.
  • Be able to cope with unpleasant sights and smells.
  • Have a neat, careful method of working.
  • Be a good timekeeper.
  • Have a polite manner with the public.

A driver should:

  • Have good driving skills for manoeuvring in narrow spaces.
  • Have good observation skills to spot possible hazards.
  • Be able to react quickly in an emergency.
  • Have patience, for driving slowly.

Your Long Term Prospects

A loader who gains an LGV licence may be able to become a driver. Some employers help to pay for LGV training for their staff.

Progression is possible to team leader, supervisor, manager and waste management officer. Supervisors and managers work from the depot, allocating areas to teams, organising collections and checking work. Higher level qualifications can help progression. These include NVQ's at Levels 3 and 4 in the management of recycling operations and in waste management supervision and management. There is also a Higher National Certificate (HNC) and a foundation degree in wastes management.

Recycling/refuse operatives employed by local councils may be able to apply for jobs in other departments. They may also choose to move to work for a waste management company.

Get Further Information

The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management,
9 Saxon Court, St Peter's Gardens,
Marefair, Northampton NN1 1SX
Tel: 01604 620426

Energy & Utility Skills, Friars Gate,
1011 Stratford Road, Shirley,
Solihull B90 4BN
Tel: 0845 077 9922

Skills for Logistics, 14 Warren Yard,
Wolverton Mill, Milton Keynes MK12 5NW
Tel: 01908 313360

Waste Management Industry Training
and Advisory Board (WAMITAB),
Peterbridge House, 3 The Lakes,
Northampton NN4 7HE
Tel: 01604 231950

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