Partner Spotlight of the Month: Blue Star Recyclers
Urban Land Conservancy celebrates the achievements of our partnerships that create and preserve nonprofit facilities and affordable housing for communities in Metro Denver. ULC’s Monthly Partner Spotlight is awarded to partners who demonstrate the value of collaboration, furthering our mission to improve the lives of Metro Denver residents through our real estate investments and community assets.
Congratulations to our April 2022 Partner Spotlight of the Month: Blue Star Recyclers!
Fourteen years ago, Bill Morris walked into an adult day program and watched four men expertly take apart electronics. He noticed how focused, interested, and downright skilled they were at the task. They also all happened to be on the autism spectrum. Morris knew these men had marketable skills and wondered if he would be able to find them some longer-term employment.
Not only did Morris successfully create jobs for the four men he met in 2008, in 2009, after a series of fortunate events, he started one of the most nuanced and purposeful companies in the region. Blue Star Recyclers ethically recycles electronics and other materials while also creating local jobs for people with autism and other disAbilities.
And no, the above spelling of disAbilities is not a typo.
“When someone with a disability is diagnosed, they’re usually around two or three years old,” said Morris, Founder, and CEO of Blue Star Recyclers. “From that moment, everyone around them becomes geared towards making sure their inabilities are taken care of. But what about their abilities? What about their strengths and the things that make them different? We want to focus on someone’s Abilities, not the fact that they have a disability.”
Of the 50 million people in the U.S. with a disability, less than 20% participate in the labor force. This is not only a loss for those individuals with a disability that would benefit from having purposeful work but a loss for the workforce in general.
“People on the autism spectrum tend to have an aptitude and attitude needed for systematic, detailed, and repetitive work,” said Morris. This makes disassembling electronics and discerning recyclable parts, a tedious and repetitive job, a perfect fit. Of the 20-50 million tons of e-waste produced each year globally, less than 20% is recycled. Not only has Blue Star created employment for over 50 people with disabilities, but they have also recycled over 31 million pounds of electronics and show no signs of stopping.
More impressive still, over the past ten years, Blue Star has had less than a 10% turnover rate, less than one accident per year, and a staggering rate of 98% work-task team engagement while on the clock (the national average sits right at 45%). In addition, the average Blue Star employee saves the average taxpayer $49,000, according to the National Institute of Social Impact. Talk about a return on investment!
Blue Star’s interview process sets up future employees for success from the get-go. They conduct a working interview where candidates try their hand at different job tasks within the plant. At the end of the interview, Morris and the team ask a simple question: which job did you enjoy the most and feel the most comfortable doing? Often, this leads to a great fit within the company.
“The best part of my job is coming back two or three months after someone has begun employment at Blue Star and seeing the palpable difference in their demeanor,” said Morris. “We’ve had individuals who were non-verbal before they started with us making friends a couple of months in or people who have climbed out of a depressive state now that they have a purpose.”
“Tom” is a great example. A college graduate, he had a speech impediment and was living in his mom’s basement. He wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 31, then, in 2017, his therapist recommended he connect with Blue Star. Within two years of starting at Blue Star, Tom had successfully worked a counter sales job where he used former acting classes to improve his social skills, was promoted to a computer refurb and social media manager, and presented at the 2018 Social Enterprise World Forum. Tom also presented at the 2020 Stanford Neurodiversity Forum. He was then promoted again to the Senior Leadership Team where he and his five-member team test and resell components. In 2020 and 2021 Tom and his team brought in over $500,000 in new net revenues.
“This just proves it’s not about lack of ability,” said Morris. “It’s a lack of opportunity.”
In 2014, Blue Star knew it was ready to expand out of Colorado Springs. However, this was also the year Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. Suddenly, warehouse space was being bought up by marijuana companies and places like Blue Star Recyclers were left in the dust.
“It was then that ULC came into the picture,” said Morris.
Morris had connected with Energy Resource Center, which was also located in Colorado Springs and looking to expand. Also, Mile High Youth Corps, which had recently been bought out of its current office space, needed a new site. Together they approached ULC about finding warehouse space they could afford. ULC found a warehouse in the Sun Valley neighborhood, purchased the building, and offered it to the three companies at $5 a square foot, half of the market value at the time.
Since then, Blue Star has expanded into Boulder, Roaring Fork Valley, and Chicago. They’ve also developed programs at high schools that teach kids the skill sets they need to enter a Blue Star- a similar workforce and guide them straight into employment when they’re ready.
In 2019 James Emmett and Company, a corporate disability consultant, partnered with Blue Star to create the Advance+ training program to help other recyclers around the country understand the basics and benefits of hiring people with disabilities. So far, 37 people have been hired thanks to this work.
“We know we have a replicable model and want to train as many other companies across the world as possible,” said Morris. “We want to lead the way for employing people with disAbilities, and expand our business to include all forms of recycling.”
We have no doubt Blue Star will continue positively impacting our community and planet. To learn more, visit their site here.