Opening doors

Blue Star and Eco-Cycle team up to employ adults with autism.

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Vinny Eide (left) and Alex Dance (right) disassemble electronic waste at Blue Star’s facility at the Eco-Cycle warehouse in Boulder.
Christi Turner | Boulder Weekly

There’s a new set of doors cut into the side of the Eco-Cycle warehouse in Boulder, the region’s most comprehensive center for hard-to-recycle materials. Through the entryway is a unique new partnership that’s about much more than just recycling.

The automatic double doors glide open into a redesigned section of the warehouse where the nonprofit Blue Star Recyclers has its new home — a reception desk, a large table hung with pneumatic screwdrivers for “de-manufacturing” electronics, dozens of large boxes for sorting components, even a break room made completely from recycled materials (a welcome gift from Eco-Cycle). Since last October, this has been Blue Star’s third and newest location, after Colorado Springs and Denver. Since opening here, the small team has been taking a stream of e-waste — old computers, laptops, TVs and other electronics — through its doors and off consumers’ hands, to be taken apart and recycled.

“Something you’ve gotta learn here is multitasking,” says Alex Dance, a Blue Star recycling tech, recounting a recent rush of electronics to process. “The Eco-Cycle guys got pizza for us and we had customers lined up. I was eating pizza with one hand, working the cash register with the other. I’m pretty sure there was a third hand doing something else.”

Although consumers have to pay to have their e-waste recycled, there’s more than one good reason to do it here. First, it’s illegal to toss old electronics in the trash, because they leach harmful toxins into the ground and water supply if left in landfills. On top of that, it reduces the need for electronics manufacturers to use virgin resources to make new products. And with Blue Star at Eco-Cycle, both of which are certified and independently audited ethical recyclers, consumers can be sure their electronics are safely and completely recycled, which isn’t always the case in this still largely unregulated industry.

And for Boulder’s larger institutions, Eco-Cycle’s hard-to-recycle-materials manager, Dan Matsch, hopes they’ll now see a reason to use Eco-Cycle instead of sending their old electronics out of state, since Blue Star will soon have its own hard drive shredder to ensure sensitive data is destroyed.

There’s another reason, too: Choosing Blue Star gives secure, well-paid jobs to a skilled workforce that struggles with abysmal employment rates. Dance, his recycling tech colleagues here and their counterparts across Blue Star’s facilities all have autism.

When Bill Morris founded the nonprofit eight years ago, he wanted to address the 80 to 90 percent unemployment rate among adults on the spectrum  — people who have marketable skills, he discovered, even soft skills taught in high school vocational programs like talking to a boss or packing a lunch. But they just don’t get hired.

“If no one will hire them, all those skills atrophy when they go home. Employers don’t want to give them a shot,” Morris says. “We started Blue Star to intentionally employ that workforce.

“We don’t hire them out of pity,” he adds. “We hire them because they’re the best workers.”

Blue Star founder Bill Morris at the Denver facility.
Blue Star founder Bill Morris at the Denver facility.

Blue Star now has around 40 employees, including a team of four in Boulder, who’ve together recycled nearly 11.5 million pounds of electronics since the organization’s inception in 2008. Last year Blue Star brought in around $1.3 million in revenue with an operating budget of $1.5 million, covering the $200,000 shortfall through a handful of donations and foundation support.

All around, the nonprofit is thriving and growing. If there’s any difficulty to employing people with autism, Morris says, it’s that it can take people a longer time to fully get the hang of their work — but once they’re up to speed they get better and better, he says. The real challenge is that Blue Star has had almost no turnover and no absenteeism in eight years; Morris has had to drastically modify his original business plan, which predicted just a 20 percent retention rate.

“People here don’t get hurt, they don’t miss work and they’re super productive,” Morris says.

Dance and his colleagues seem to embody what Morris emphasizes about his Blue Star recycle techs: They truly enjoy what they do.

“I love it. We get paid to destroy stuff,” Dance says, wearing a Blue Star hoodie and holding a pneumatic screwdriver. “Honestly, I don’t know how many people can say that at the age of 24 they have a job where they want to go to work.”

Vinny Eide, in a camouflage jacket, baseball hat and safety glasses, agrees.

“I’d say the same thing along those lines. Most people don’t get to say they love going to work,” he says. “Except my dad — he works at Oracle. He makes the things we take apart.”

Eide goes on to explain how difficult it is to disassemble a Mac Book, holding one in his hands: “These are the most pain-in-the-butt computers to take apart. I somehow got this panel off but I don’t know how I’m going to get the other panel off. It’s riveted.”

Dance playfully chides Eide to wrap up his interview, motioning to the growing pile of laptops on the pallet marked “Vinny.” Everyone here at Blue Star has a goal: to de-manufacture at least 16 computers, or the equivalent, in one shift. That’s how the organization breaks even and it keeps the workforce motivated.

“They really love to know what success is,” Morris says. “And when these guys are working, the taxpayer saves $18.29 an hour. Since they’re eligible for benefits, if they sit home they’ll get a check just to sit home. When they work, their earned income displaces the benefit income by about two to one. Taxpayers get a break, and they’d much rather come to work than sit home. We’ve got a workforce that is phenomenal.”

With the Eco-Cycle collaboration in Boulder in place, Morris is working to bring Blue Star into more cities around Colorado and beyond. His goal remains the same: to create good, lasting job opportunities for people with autism, providing the community with local, environmentally sustainable electronics recycling in the process.

“I don’t want to be the world’s best recycler,” he says. “I just want to be the world’s best employer of this workforce.”