Blue Star Recyclers: A triple bottom-line venture
Bill Morris’ career was one of the first things to be repurposed at Blue Star Recyclers. In 2008, after 25 years in the telecommunications industry and in need of work, he took a job as a program manager for Community Intersections (CI) in Colorado Springs.
CI is a local service provider to The Resource Exchange, the local Community Center Board serving people with developmental and other disabilities in the Pikes Peak region. Morris soon observed that many adults with developmental disabilities (as unpaid volunteers) displayed strong aptitude and interest in the disassembly of electronics donated by the public.
Convinced that this activity could be developed into a vocational opportunity, Morris proposed a work skills and paid employment program in partnership with GRX, an e-waste recycler based in Denver. In November 2008, the program was launched with four disabled adults from CI as paid employees. Payroll was totally funded from the sale of separated base materials and proceeds from consumer recycling drop off fees.
In September 2009, Morris had a chance meeting with Tony and Mary Fagnant, owners of Qualtek Manufacturing in Colorado Springs, who were working on an idea to open an electronics recycling business in an empty warehouse they owned. Discussions quickly led to an agreement that this location could become a new locally owned and operated home for the CI employment program under the name Blue Star Recyclers. Morris was hired as president and the leadership team and six disabled adults were moved over to Blue Star early in 2010.
Morris approached Electronic Recycling International (ERI), the largest electronics recycler in the U.S,, to help his company secure special pricing on CRT processing, commodity materials, and logistics support. John Shegerian, ERI founder and CEO, recognized the venture as a good way to demonstrate his company’s commitment to community service. Matt McLaughlin, Regional Sales Director explains that support from ERI and ERI’s OEM partnerships were instrumental in assisting Blue Star’s initiatives.
Non-profit Blue Star now has 15 workers, 10 of whom have developmental disabilities. Morris estimates the total social return on investment is approximately $20,000 per worker per year in terms of reduced taxpayer support for people who would otherwise be dependent on government benefits. These workers have reacted to their new status as genuinely productive members of the economy with near-100% attendance records, no lost-time accidents and remarkable levels of productivity and attention to detail.
In addition to these social and economic benefits, Blue Star’s environmental impact is also significant. Recycled material volume rose from 670,000 pounds in 2010 to more than 1.2 million in 2011. The company’s disabled workers disassemble computers into base commodity materials which are sold and processed for re-manufacture. All other materials, such as CRTs and general e-waste, go to ERI.
An $89,000 award last year from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Recycling Resource Economic Opportunity grant fund allowed Blue Star to create VERN (Vocational Electronics Recycling Network) as a way to share its proven model and provide smaller cities and rural communities in Colorado with a viable and ongoing e-waste recycling option. Using the Colorado Springs operation as a template, Blue Star works with local community service organizations to establish the operation, assist in the selection of appropriate workers and set up an initial marketing effort.
So far, the grant has funded programs in Otero, Pueblo and Fremont counties. They are independently run but each is required to secure a modest amount of seed funding from local sources before applying for grant.
“It’s important for them to have skin in the game to underscore that this is a social entrepreneurship business model and not a charity endeavor,” Morris says.
All three communities now have an ongoing e-waste solution modeled after Blue Star’s own operation that simultaneously provides local vocational training and jobs for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Morris is currently applying to three major foundations to secure a large grant that would enable VERN to become a separate division within Blue Star Recyclers and provide the resources to expand VERN throughout Colorado and on a national scale.
Blue Star Recyclers is a truly triple bottom line venture, a shining example of what social entrepreneurship can accomplish.