A loud crash echoes through the warehouse as Alex Dance smashes an old printer on the solid concrete floor.
He then says, “Oh I’m not done yet,” before picking up the printer and giving it another solid toss. Finally, he’s loosened up the walls of the printer, which he tears down, allowing him to remove the ink cartridges inside.
After tossing the cartridges in one bin and sorting the plastic printer remains into other various bins, he looks up and says, “I love my job.”
This job he enjoys so much is working at the Blue Star Recyclers facility in Boulder, which specializes in the recycling of electronics. Bill Morris founded the company nine years ago down in Colorado Springs. His son Sam is now the Director of Operations at the new Boulder location, which officially opened its doors Nov. 15.
Though there are many different waste management and e-recycling centers in the Front Range area, one element separates Blue Star from the rest: they specifically hire employees with autism.
Back in 2007, Bill Morris was managing a company that dealt with similar waste management, and it had a day program for adults with mental disabilities. They were holed up in a “dimly lit corner of a warehouse” breaking down simple electronic devices, according to Sam.
He went onto explain: “[my father] really noticed something in them. If you put a simple step process in front of these guys, they get it. It’s gotta be black and white and a step-by-step process that you can go through.”
It was this revelation that drove his father to start his own company.
Sam told me that the company prides itself on being a place where autistic adults can thrive, and not waste away their days in dimly-lit corners. But just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they receive special treatment. An employee is an employee.
“I think that’s the most important thing,” said Sam. “They’re adults, they’re human beings, they don’t like to be talked down to just like we don’t like to (be) … We like to joke around, we like to work hard, we have to work hard. It’s really a big part of our culture here; keeping it light and making sure everyone has fun.”
And so far, they’ve seen great results. Morris explained to me that he’s seen employees walk in on their first day and be really reserved, sometimes not saying a single word. As their employment goes on, people start to come out of their shell until they’re just “one of the guys.”
The warehouse eventually becomes a “happy place where they can be themselves and interact with each other.”
Blue Star currently operates electronics recycling centers in Colorado Springs, Denver and now 6400 Arapahoe Road in Boulder.
Alex, the printer-obliterating employee mentioned earlier, echoed this sentiment. He’s only been at Blue Star for about a week and a half, but told me he can already tell it’s different from any other place he’s worked.
“People who are not as afflicted as us look at us and, honestly, I think they see defective merchandise or something like that. But we just see the world differently… and [at Blue Star], we’re treated just like any other employee.”
This is a contrast to other place he’s worked where he’s felt like a burden, and has gotten the vibe that people didn’t like “dealing with him” since he was the “token disabled kid.” Getting people with autism into the work force, giving them a paycheck and role in society also has a strong economic benefit.
Sam told me the company has saved taxpayers over one million dollars over the years by pulling folks off of Social Security disability benefits.
In order to get the space in Boulder, Blue Star teamed up with Eco-Cycle, a waste management company that’s celebrating their 40th year of business in the city.
Back in 2001, they started the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials, or “CHaRM,” a large part of which involved electronics recycling. But before, they didn’t have a team to disassemble the electronics and redistribute them accordingly. By teaming up with Blue Star, they now have that capability, and are on their way to becoming an “E-Steward” certified recycling center. It’s a big step in the right direction towards their goal of zero waste.
Eco-Cycle Director of Communications Harlin Savage believes the benefits from their partnership will ripple through the community: “We care a lot about creating jobs locally, about providing education and resources community wide, and that is part of what we’re doing here. We have a greater reach and a greater impact by partnering with Blue Star Recyclers than we could do otherwise.”
The future is definitely bright for these two companies. Morris aims to keep fostering a fun, yet productive, space for workers with developmental challenges while Savage will continually spread his company’s influence throughout the city. For more information on Blue Star, their pricing, and what they accept (everything from iPads to fridges), find them online here. For the Boulder location website, click here.
When you’re there, make sure to check out the warehouse. They have stacks of phones, TVs, and computers from the past two decades.
Perusing the various crates and boxes is truly a walk down technology memory lane. And who knows? Maybe you’ll even witness a printer meeting its maker.