953 Decatur Street, Suite C
Denver, CO 80204
Locations in Boulder and Colorado Springs, CO and Chicagoland (Buffalo Grove), IL
Founder: Bill Morris
“Recycling Electronics to Create Jobs for People with disAbilities. Blue Star Recyclers is an e-Steward certified, nonprofit social enterprise based in various sites in Colorado and Illinois. Blue Star’s mission is recycling electronics and other materials to create local jobs for people with autism and other disAbilities. The fulfillment of its mission to date has produced significant triple bottom line results, including 40 jobs in Colorado for people with disAbilities, 22 million lbs. of electronics ethically recycled, and $2.5 million in SROI (Social Return on Investment) from taxpayer savings and earned income reinvested back into our communities”
From the Website:
Recently celebrated 10-year anniversary and currently recycling the following:
Residential and business electronics including laptop and desktop computers, monitors, TVs, household electronics (Printers, keyboards, DVD and VCR players, stereos, video game players, cell phones, printers, fax machines, AV equipment), and small appliances (Microwaves, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, fans).
From the 2019 Annual Report, Social, Environmental and Economic Impact is noted as follows:
50 total permanent employees (40 for people with disAbilities)
6 supervisory and program leadership positions filled by people with disabilities
Vocational training for 32 special education/transitions program students
3,421,104 lbs. of electronics ethically recycled
98,369 lbs. of hazardous waste diverted
4,768,644 lbs. of greenhouse gas emission reductions
$2,410,642 in earned income from Colorado recycling operations program
$389,770 in grants, individual donations and corporate sponsorships
$272,001 in taxpayer savings.
In addition, 4th consecutive year set new records for total jobs, income, and material volume, and is 100% financially self-sustainable for first time since founding.
I visited Blue Star Recyclers in Denver, CO at the suggestion of Laurie Sperry, a highly respected colleague in the autism field. Bill Morris, founder, was kind enough to spend several hours with me in July, 2019, giving me a very detailed tour of their Denver plant and explaining in great detail the philosophy and practical aspects of the operation.
I arrived at Blue Star and saw various sized trucks (with the Blue Star logo) at loading bays. I also saw signs on the front door clearly explaining the mission of Blue Star. They are located in industrial area of downtown Denver, just west of I-25. On our tour, in the first two rooms, we observed workers shredding hard drives, disassembling computers, and testing old computer components (i.e. RAM) to be used in rebuilt computers. Most of this work is performed by people on the autism spectrum. We then proceeded to a large warehouse where other workers were organizing and sorting other types of electronics (home appliances, etc) in to large bins. Most of the work this room, which involves lifting and hauling, is done by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Morris points out the lack of women working at Blue Star and notes that it has been difficult to recruit women. He is not sure why.
Morris started Blue Star after being laid off from his job of 30 years in the telecom field. He has created a business and a model which simultaneously “solves” three “problems”: employment for people with disabilities, recycling of generally hard to recycle electronic and computer products, and retention of workers in an industry with very high turnover.
Many of the lessons Bill Morris shared during our walk through are shared below. I was very impressed by his ability to identify and tune in to the unique interests and needs of each worker—and to match them to a “good fitting” job. He asks them what they enjoy and lets then try it out. “They light up like a Christmas tree—we start them there!” Each worker has a realistic target number of computers to disassemble per day, and this number increases as they master it and feel comfortable.
Morris captures the magnitude of the issue of waste—50 million tons each year (TVs, coffee pots, electric toothbrushes, etc). He observes that not recycling “deprives the manufacturing sector of base materials, and they have to mine more.” Consumers who wish to bring TVs and appliances to Blue Star for recycling pay $.59 per pound. Computer recycling is free as there are local incentives for recycling computers.
Blue Star recently opened a plant in Chicago. Morris continues to consult (by phone and online, and in person) across the United States and in such countries as Chile and Israel.
- It is important to draw on your own past experiences (if you have had them) of being unemployed. “when you have something to offer and nobody wants you, it destroys you.”
- In assembling a labor force, it is important to match the right worker, with the right work (ask what they would like to do, what they enjoy the most—we start them there!).
- don’t have a file of each worker as they mostly tell their limitations, what they struggle with and what they can’t do.
- do not have a “tyranny of low expectation;” set high expectations and work towards it.
- Invest in finding the right partners—for example, a school district’s transition program. Teach their staff what to teach their students in order to get a job with Blue Star.
- “get them right after high school”—if they have a period of settling back home (i.e. to the sofa) between high school graduation and work, you will lose them.
- “the worst part of not having a job is not having a gang to be part of”—we often make the incorrect assumption that this population doesn’t like to be with others. Being part of a team is a big deal for most people.
- “we define success by numbers” (but each person has a different goal, and it changes as they master it—in disassembling computers, doing 16 per shift is the break even point. Some do 12, some do 20; all are working to improve).
- It is important to know going in that there are seasonal variations when it comes to recycling. March to June is very busy as Americans are big on recycling in the spring.
- It is hard to get females interested in this field (“not sure why”)
- parents are often over-invested in their child’s disability and don’t have faith in them, that they can do the work.
- Transportation of workers to the job site is sometimes a problem (options include public transportation, para transit, getting ride and driving themselves).