INSPIRED IMPACT is an ongoing blog series that gives voice to purpose-driven organizations and passionate leaders and entrepreneurs who are making an impact in their communities and industries.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
Blue Star Recyclers is a nonprofit, e-Stewards certified social enterprise with a mission of ethically recycling electronics to create local jobs for people with autism and other disabilities. Founded in 2009 in Colorado Springs, Blue Star now employs 40 workers at three locations in Colorado Springs, Denver, and Boulder.
WHY DO YOU DO IT?
Two reasons: First, more than 80% of adults with autism and other disabilities are unemployed – yet most want to work and can work. Second, less than 20% of the electronic waste is ethically recycled in the US, yet virtually all electronic components can be recycled and repurposed for new manufacturing.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
We are fortunate to produce significant triple-bottom line impact, including social, environmental, and economic. To date we’ve changed the lives of more than 50 adults with disabilities by providing an opportunity for meaningful employment, and all the associated positive aspects of having purpose. Environmentally, we’ve ethically recycled more than 12 million pounds of electronic waste, which has kept several hundred thousand pounds of toxic materials out of landfills, and extended the life of what went into all that volume. Lastly, we’ve reduced taxpayer burden by more than $1 million by reducing dependency on and utilization of benefits our workforce is eligible to receive. In addition, we’ve generated more than $5 million in earned income and reinvested it right back in Colorado through our payroll, rent, supplies, etc.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO MAKE THIS IMPACT?
Two people. The first is my oldest brother Paul, who is developmentally disabled. He is 71-years-old but has never experienced the feeling of having a real job. The second is the young man named CJ Garcia, who was my inspiration for starting Blue Star. He was one of the original four young men I discovered at a day-habilitation center in Colorado Springs, who possessed remarkable innate skills for recycling electronics, but had virtually no hope of finding meaningful employment. He passed away in the middle of the night in October of 2010 from a complication from his seizure disorder, but it is important to note CJ didn’t have a single seizure from late 2008 to his death in 2010, during which time he was employed with us. Prior to having that job he had seizures two or three times each week in the disability services setting. This is why my passion is bringing men and women out of services (only) and into employment – where they bloom and thrive.
WHAT’S YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE ORGANIZATION AND THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
Starting April 1st, Blue Star Recyclers is beginning a national expansion initiative, where we will bring our mission and model to other cities in the US. While we still plan to grow vertically and add new jobs in Colorado, to make a dent in the larger unemployment problem, we must also grow horizontally. We are fortunate to have a social enterprise model that is replicable in most markets with a population over 250,000 – and there are already five US cities in early qualification and assessment.
WHAT IS (OR HAS BEEN) YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE?
Availability of upstream material for recycling. While Americans produce hundreds of millions of tons of e-waste every year, we are largely unaware of what to do with something electronic when we are done with it. So public education is a huge factor in our viability. Here’s something amazing… if we recycled half of the e-waste produced in Colorado we could employ another 20-30 workers with disabilities in Colorado. An interesting fact – 75% of our material comes from business, institutional, and government accounts – which are highly competitive. As a social enterprise we are not here to be the lowest price provider… we are here to deliver the best service for the money and produce social impacts that benefit the communities we serve. I LOVE our customers, because they are looking for the best service and greatest impact rather than the lowest cost.
WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHER LEADERS LOOKING TO MAKE AN IMPACT?
I believe all successful social entrepreneurs have one innate common thread… empathy. All the rest can be learned. I also believe the whole social enterprise movement (like any movement) is vulnerable to the short-lived fad or trend. However, successful social enterprises will make a long-term commitment, and will embed the core social impact of their mission into their DNA, not snap it on as an after-thought or add-on just to fit into the movement. Those who only seek to appear like a social enterprise will ultimately fail because they will have no one in their community to stand up for them. I believe we have survived and grown because we change lives. Period.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
Three ways… First, we need all the unwanted electronics you can find in your homes and businesses. That is the lifeblood of our enterprise and mission. Second, as a 501c3 you can send us a donation if you can’t find any old electronics to recycle with us. Last, you can spread the word for us… and help us educate the public about electronics recycling, and the impact that can be created if they recycle with us.