Unique Talents: Employing People with Disabilities in Electronics Recycling
27th January, 2021
For more than a decade, an innovative electronics recycling firm has been successfully implementing two progressive initiatives: responsibly dealing with e-waste and providing employment opportunities for people with autism and other disabilities. Now, thanks to the support of Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation, it’s been able to expand and encourage other companies around the United States to follow in its footsteps.
Meeting a Need
Blue Star Recyclers was founded with the aim of giving disabled members of society the opportunity to earn a living and put their own unique abilities to use, all while helping to reduce the amount of e-waste — discarded electric and electronic devices — that was making its way to landfills. For Bill Morris, co-founder of the company, his inspiration started close to home.
Morris, who had worked in the telecommunications industry for about 30 years, has an older brother with a developmental disability who was never able to enter the workforce. Witnessing this situation firsthand kept the idea of helping people like his brother at the forefront of his mind.
Over 10 years ago, he was given the chance to make his idea a reality. "I was in contact with a small group of young men at a disability services center," Morris says. "They were being kept busy taking apart some electronics, and over the course of a few months, I noticed that they were very, very good at the tasks. These four young men, who all had autism, had never had a job — or even a job interview — but I felt that their skills were marketable and they should have a way of earning a living. So we started a small paid employment enclave for a year back in 2008. The success of that program is what led to Blue Star Recyclers." The company was launched in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Thanks to the success of its business model, Blue Star was able to expand from its initial location to branches in Denver and Boulder. However, the company realized that it needed to be able to take the mission and concept of the company beyond Colorado. This led Blue Star to reach out to Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation (MEAF) for support in 2017. From the time it was established in 1991, MEAF has been dedicated to supporting young people with disabilities — and since 2011, it has put a special focus on helping them find employment. So, partnering with Blue Star was a natural fit for the organization.
Spreading the Word
Blue Star was clearly demonstrating that employing people with autism and other disabilities to take electronics apart isn’t just a way to assist those in need, but also a smart business idea.
As Morris explains, the company’s employees — 80 percent of whom have a disability — are uniquely suited to the work. "They are attracted to tasks that involve systematic and repetitive procedures. They love to do something over and over and over again, and that requires a lot of focus."
The numbers speak for themselves. Compared to general figures for the e-waste recycling industry, Blue Star’s numbers are remarkable. Average employee turnover in the industry is 500 percent, while at Blue Star it is less than 10 percent. The average employee in the industry misses two days per month, but Blue Star employees miss no days. And whereas the industry average sees 8.5 lost-time accidents per 100 employees, the company only has 0.5.
Thanks to the financial support of MEAF, Blue Star was in a position to help achieve similar results on a larger scale. In 2018, it created a video that would help get the word out about Blue Star and launched a market feasibility study that looked at two ways to expand its mission: sharing its electronics recycling employment model with other organizations and investigating possible locations for a new Blue Star facility outside Colorado.
As a result of the company’s outreach, two businesses — Electronic Recycling Solutions in Nashville, Tennessee, and Motherboard Recycling in Omaha, Nebraska — have taken up Blue Star’s social mission and now employ eight people with autism in their facilities. The employees have been trained according to Blue Star’s methods, and their training has been bolstered by MEAF’s financial support.
In 2019, Blue Star was able to establish its own location outside Colorado in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. In addition to financial support from MEAF for the startup, VISION Committee volunteers from Mitsubishi Electric Automation, Inc., based in Vernon Hills, Illinois, donated 680 kg of electronic waste. Blue Star has also partnered with Sipi Asset Recovery, another Illinois-based recycler that employs workers with disabilities.
Just as it has at its Colorado locations, Blue Star’s Illinois branch will work with school districts to establish employment training programs that will give students with autism and other disabilities opportunities to take part in electronics recycling vocational training, which can lead to jobs at Blue Star and other electronics recycling companies.
A Bright Future
Despite its already significant achievements, Blue Star has sought to accomplish even more within the industry. The same year that it opened its branch in Illinois, it presented its employment model to e-Stewards, a non-governmental organization that is responsible for maintaining a worldwide standard for electronics waste recycling.
In addition, with funding from MEAF and other funders, it worked within e-Stewards to develop the ADVANCE+ initiative. This program is designed to create jobs for people with autism and other disabilities, as well as provide benefits for companies that are certified within the initiative. These benefits include the development of a loyal, dedicated base of employees and the marketing benefits that come from being able to tell the story behind the initiative.
For the initiative, Blue Star and the disability employment specialist James Emmett & Company will provide support and training for onsite disability inclusion, employee sourcing, as well as internal and external messaging training. Nine e-Stewards recyclers, with operations in a combined 15 states, have been selected for the initial training. Their goal is to help 50 young people with disabilities make their way to employment by the end of 2021. The recyclers are already half way toward their goal.
As Kevin Webb, senior director with MEAF, explains, this industry training approach can lead to long-term changes for disability employment. "Our aim as a foundation is to help increase competitive employment opportunities for youth with disabilities. By introducing the Blue Star disability employment training model at an industry level, it can create a ripple effect. Recyclers certified through e-Stewards can find a source of reliable talent. Patrons who ethically recycle their e-waste with e-Stewards will also be supporting jobs for people with disabilities. And when they see people with disabilities at work at e-Stewards, they may consider hiring employees with disabilities in their own industries. This is how MEAF is working to reach its goal of empowering youth with disabilities."
As for Morris, he’d like to see the program expand further over the next decade and create even more opportunities for people with autism or other disabilities: "If Mitsubishi Electric and Blue Star could find a way to replicate this program so that in 10 years it could be in most cities of every size, that would be great. I want to level the playing field out there."
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