How I Spent My Grant: Colorado effort spurs e-scrap jobs for adults with autism

How I Spent My Grant: Colorado effort spurs e-scrap jobs for adults with autism

By Eric Heyboer, Recycling Grant Program Administrator, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

May 9,2014

Here's the latest installment of "How I Spent My Grant," a feature that takes a look at the ways recycling programs translate funding into actionable ideas.

Organization: Blue Star Recyclers and the Vocational Electronic Recycling Network

Grant: Nearly $90,000 in funding from the Recycling Resources Economic Opportunity (RREO) Fund, a grant program managed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The Story: Even in the best of times, it isn't easy for individuals with autism to find jobs. Throw in today’s economy and the scenario is almost impossible. In fact, according to nonprofit e-scrap recycling organization Blue Star Recyclers, unemployment among working-age Coloradans with cognitive disabilities is as high as 80 percent, despite the fact that many have the ability and desire to engage in meaningful work. As a result, a majority of adults with autism are dependent on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid benefits.

Yet, unknown to many employers, adults with autism generally enjoy repetitive tasks, and this enthusiasm for repetition is a great untapped resource, as companies and organizations such as Blue Star can attest.

Blue Star, based in Colorado Springs, currently employs 12 people with cognitive disabilities, and representatives from the organization say that workforce workers has helped the operation avoid the turnover and morale issues faced by other e-scrap processing firms and organizations.

 

"We have had 100 percent retention, we have zero off-day accidents and our workers have doubled their production since they started," said Andy O'Riley, division president at Blue Star. "Not only are these adults with autism contributing as productive workers, they’re earning the satisfaction of a job well done."

Realizing both the job creation and environmental opportunities in e-scrap recycling, Blue Star sought RREO grant funds to replicate its initial success on a larger scale.

Through an $89,786 RREO grant, Blue Star launched the Vocational Electronic Recycling Network (VERN) in 2011. VERN is a network of small, locally owned Colorado e-scrap recyclers. Like Blue Star, all VERN members help local economies by creating job opportunities for adults with autism while providing their communities with easy access to drop-off locations for end-of-life electronics.

The network is supported by an economically sustainable material processing model. Small recycling operations face much higher processing costs than their larger counterparts. To address this constraint, VERN uses a hub-and-spoke system that allows its small community members to take advantage of economies of scale by processing higher volumes of e-scrap, giving them access to the same pricing as a large firm.

Each member in the VERN network serves as a spoke e-scrap facility, and Blue Star’s Colorado Springs site serves as the hub. Once there’s enough accumulated material, Blue Star sends it downstream for further processing.

The grant provided the resources to establish local partnerships with agencies serving adults with cognitive disabilities. It also helped provide training, build collection depots and teach members how to increase public awareness of new collection centers in these communities.

"By the end of the grant year, the three VERN sites diverted nearly 250,000 pounds of electronic waste away from local landfills," said O'Riley. "Just as significant, we created 13 vocational opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities, 10 of which proved sustainable beyond the grant year."

VERN has now become a permanent division of Blue Star, generating revenues from consultant fees paid by the members and from a small percentage of each member’s e-scrap processing revenues.

"Every community is generating e-waste and every community is facing really high unemployment for people with disabilities," said O'Riley. "What VERN really does is address both issues simultaneously."

To date, the VERN network has collected about 4 million pounds of e-scrap and created 43 jobs for people with disabilities. Blue Star estimates the effort amounts to more than $500,000 in taxpayer savings by reducing workers’ dependence on SSI and Medicaid benefits.

Does your firm or municipality have a grant implementation success story? Email details to news@resource-recycling.com.

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