How Tech in the City is Recycled

Published on February 05, 2020

Byte-Size Tech Tales is a monthly podcast featuring stories about the technology revolutionizing the City of Denver. Join Technology Services' interns in discovering how technology is transforming local government through the perspectives of city employees and IT experts.

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Transcription of "How Tech in the City is Recycled"

Dil: Ciao.

Ben: Howdy.

Dil: Welcome to Byte-Sized Tech Tales, a monthly podcast telling stories about the technology the City of Denver uses to revolutionize the lives of Denverites. In today's episode we are going to learn how Denver has made a commitment to sustainability, and how Technology Services does their part to help reduce their footprint.

Ben: Today we are going to be talking to Bill Morris, the founder of Blue Star Recycler's, about how the city disposes of its old electronics and what you can do to properly dispose of your personal electronics. We will also be speaking to city employee Anthony Gonzales about the steps Denver takes to purchase electronics that are energy efficient and how you can do the same. 

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Bill: My name is Bill Morris and I am the cofounder and CEO of Blue Star Recycler's. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit social enterprise based in Colorado and founded in 2009.

Dil: What brought you to start a recycling company? 

Bill: Well it actually started one year before we founded Blue Star when I came across four young men in a day program setting which is where if you have a son or daughter with a disability, they would receive services. I was running a program with about 65 adults with pretty severe developmental disabilities, but in the back of the building was this small room with four young men sitting around a table taking apart electronics. To this day I'm not quite sure who put them back there. They were just taking somethings apart that had been dropped off at the center and I think it was just to keep them busy. They were not being paid, trained, or supervised really, but what caught my eye was that all four of them were very, very good at tasks at hand. They were able to grab a screwdriver and were able to take apart printers, computers, and things like that apart quickly. I asked them where they learned how to do that, and they sort of shrugged their shoulders and said they taught themselves. I went and looked at their files and found out that all four of them were diagnosed in the autism spectrum, and I did a little digging on autism because I didn't know that much about it. I came across some information that was really helpful for me. One was that people with autism share a common affinity for systematic, procedural, tactile, and repetitive tasks. They really enjoy and are good at tasks that have steps and repeating those steps. The other thing I read was that over 90% of adults with autism were unemployed, and I'm looking at these four young men and I'm thinking that they have marketable skill. In the next couple of months, I wrote a business plan to essentially get them to work, and to do that I had to start an electronic recycling company. What sets us apart is really our work force because they're a superior work force. That's sort of counter-intuitive for people to think about people with disabilities being more productive and reliable, but they are. So, they come to work, get all the work done, they don't goof off, they don't miss work, and they don't get hurt because the job means so much to them. So really Blue Star had grown into the largest electronic recycling based in Colorado, is really looked upon as being the top social enterprise in Colorado, and it’s all because of our people.

Dil: That's a wonderful story. How many employees do you have at Blue Star Recycles?

Bill: We just hit 50 actually.

Dil: Wow.

Bill: In Colorado we have 3 locations: Colorado Springs, Denver, and Boulder. We are opening in Aurora and the Roaring Fork Valley the first of the year, and we are actually opening a brand-new operation in Chicago.

Dil: Wow. So, you're really branching out, that's great.

Ben: So, it sounds like you don't have a big background in recycling, was there a lot you had to learn about it when you were first getting started? How did you kind of learn the recycling business?

Bill: Holy cow was there ever. All I wanted to do was put 4 young men to work, that should've been working instead of in a day program. So, we had to learn the industry, and we are very fortunate we had organizations and recycling people in the state that helped us; people with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment gave us some grants to help us get going. It was a steep curve.

Ben: Nice. I don't have too much of a background in recycling myself, but I know that it's different than just recycling paper and plastics. For someone like me, who doesn't know recycling, could you maybe highlight some differences or key steps involved in recycling electronics?

Bill: You bet. I think that electronics recycling is one of the most misunderstood, and probably underutilized service there is. Electronic waste is the fastest growing, solid waste stream, in the world. Human beings buy a lot of technology and it becomes obsolete and you get rid of it. The problem is that the public has no idea what to do what it. Throughout the country and throughout the world there are pockets of good recycling programs surrounded by huge areas where there is no recycling of electronics. Worse yet, even in the areas where there are good programs there is almost no money for public education. So here is the scenario, mom and dad have that old CRT TV in their garage and they decide to get rid of it. They don't know what to do so they take it to the landfill, the landfill turns them away because we have the landfill ban as of 2013, and somewhere between the landfill and home they set in a parking lot, an alley, or along a street somewhere because they don't want to put it back in their garage. They think that the TV has value, so they don't seem themselves doing something illegal, which it is. This gets to the problem Ben, which is only about 20% of the materials by volume in electronics have a positive value. They may be worth a cent a pound, they might be worth $10 a pound if they are precious metal or something, but 80% of the material by volume in the electronics has a negative cost. So, while that TV is placed out on the street has about $3 to $5 of copper and other commodity material, to process it ethically would cost about $40 for all the other materials; like the lead, glass in the CRT, and all the other materials that have no value. We have to educate the population that electronics recycling ethically costs. I will put in a plug for City and County of Denver because it's one of the best programs, if not the best program in the state for residents. If they will just go online and access your web page they can get information on where to recycle, and if they don't have the disposable income to afford recycling they can get a coupon. The City and County of Denver residents have it very easy compared to most other municipalities in this state.

Ben: And how many pounds of electronics have you recycled from the City and County of Denver since you began recycling for them?

Bill: Well I think it’s been a little over a year since we did our first pick-up and it just crossed 300,000 pounds. So, I think we are at 300,001 pounds of electronic waste we have recycled for the city.

Ben: And what kind of electronics have you seen? Has it been computers or a wide variety of things?

Bill: Well anything under the sun you can think of we've seen. Traffic lights, signs from DIA, monitors from DIA, certainly computers and all of the computer peripherals, but anything that plugs into a wall and anything that is battery operated they've had us pick up.

Ben: And now let's hear from Anthony Gonzales from the city of Denver about their life cycle of electronics within the city.

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Anthony: My name is Anthony Gonzales, I'm a desktop support manager, and I've been with the city for about 18 years. 

Dil: Wow. Can you tell us roughly how many computers and other electronics that the city buys in a year?

Anthony: So, we are looking from anywhere 1,500 to 2,000 devices and it just really varies depending on the amount of PC replacements we have, or the amount of projects that are out there. 

Dil: Does the city take any steps to purchase electronics that are energy efficient?

Anthony: Yeah, we do. We add that language to our contract for our vendors. Our old contract specified which EP standards the equipment had to be, and our current contract specifies that they have to be energy star certified.

Dil: Do you have any advice for people on what to look for when they're buying personal electronics?

Anthony: In the owner's manual it will tell you the power consumption of the device, and it should also have an energy star sticker on it. This lets you know that it meets certain standards of energy efficiency.

Ben. Gotcha. Once we have those purchased electronics are there any settings or features that we deploy with the city to help try to save power?

Anthony: Yeah. Right now, we put the monitors to sleep after a certain amount of time.

Ben: Do you have any tips for people at home on how they could kind of reduce their energy consumption?

Anthony: Turn off devices that aren't in use. That's probably where I would start.

Ben: Okay nice. Then when those devices come to the end of their life cycle, what does the city do with the electronics?

Anthony: We recycle through Blue Star. They go ahead and destroy the hard drives for us, destroy the data on the hard drives, and then they recycle the equipment for us.

Ben: And is destroying the hard drives a security thing to make sure to wipe data clean from it.

Anthony: Yes, and we make sure that we get a certificate of destruction so we know that the hard drive has been wiped. 

Ben: Sure. 

Dil: Now let's get back to Bill at Blue Star Recycling.

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Ben: You obviously recycle a lot of electronics, so how big of a deal is it that the city recycles all of its electronics through your company?

Bill: Well I think this goes right back to our core mission, which is employment of people with disabilities. If you think about it there's a formula for every pound that gets recycled, that creates labor hours for people with disabilities. When you're talking about 300,000 pounds of electronics, it essentially works out to 2 full-time employees every year that the City and County of Denver is responsible for. So, the amount of material you recycle now is creating employment for 2 employees. When you think about it this way, here is where it gets better, when an employee with a disability is working they save the tax payer about $18.30 an hour because when they're working they're reducing their dependence on the utilization of tax payer funded benefits. So, every job the City and County of Denver creates with Blue Star, the tax payer gets a break as well.

Ben: Could you maybe talk about some of those environmental impacts?

Bill: Yeah. This is probably the biggest misunderstanding about electronics recycling. Certainly, the unethical or irresponsible disposal of this material can cause an environmental problem because there are heavy metals in the circuit boards and CRT screens. So, if those go in the wrong place they can leach heavy metals, but these bigger environmental issue with electronics is the manufacturers of electronics need constituent-based materials to make new items. When we don't recycle, and right now we recycle 20-30% of the electronics that are produced internationally, the manufacturers are not getting back their base materials. They are digging new holes in the ground to get copper, aluminum, and all the other components. That greenhouse gas emission reduction comes from when we recycle electronics, and we don't dig holes in the ground. We significantly reduced the carbon footprint.

Ben: So then do you have any tips for the normal people, like the couple we talked about earlier, that have their TV turned away from the landfill and don't know what to do with it; any tips for them and how they can recycle their personal electronics? 

Bill: Absolutely. If they go to the municipality, whether they live in City and County of Denver or Aurora or Thornton, the solid waste people at each municipality even if they don't have recycling themselves they have the resource to tell people where to take them the material. So, what I would say is, before you throw away material or put it back in the basement or garage, check with your municipality and find out where to take it. One last step is if you are going to decide to recycle make sure you use a certified recycler to make sure the material is treated properly.

Ben: That's awesome. Well thank you for everything that you've done, and it sounds like you have an amazing organization over there; really helping out the community and the environment. Is there anything else that you want to share with us today that you haven't had a chance to mention yet?

Bill: No, I would just say if anyone is interested I would invite them to come for a tour. When you come to the Blue Star, see how the electronics are recycled, and see our workforce it's a pretty life changing event because this workforce is extremely good at what they do it will blow up some misconceptions that we have about people with disabilities. It's just a lot of fun to go through the plant, so I would encourage anyone to come see us if interested. 

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Ben: Thank you to Anthony for talking about how the City of Denver buys, uses, and disposes of electronics in an ethical and sustainable way.  

Dil: And to Bill Morris for sharing his story about what Blue Star Recyclers does for the community and environment. If you want to learn more about what they do visit bluestarrecyclers.org and see you for the next episode.