Today we’d like to introduce you to Bill Morris.
Bill, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I co-founded Blue Star Recyclers in 2009 with the Fagnant Family in Colorado Springs one year after making an unplanned discovery: People with autism and other disabilities possess innate skills for tasks involved in the recycling of electronics. After testing the hunch in a disability services provider employment enclave setting, we had positive proof that the high levels of unemployment they face (80-90% nationally) are not due to a lack of ability. It is a lack of opportunity. Twelve years later our permanent workforce of over 50 people with disabilities has proven to be superior in almost every occupational metric – including zero absenteeism, less than 10% annual turnover, and 0-1 annual lost-time accidents. Five years ago a third-party researcher observed they were also 98% task-engaged on the clock, which is twice the average of the traditional American employee.
Blue Star Recyclers is a nonprofit social enterprise with a mission of recycling electronics to create jobs for people with disabilities. The fulfillment of our mission to date has resulted in the ethical recycling of over 23 million pounds of electronics, creating over 50 jobs for people with disabilities at our five recycling operations in Colorado and Illinois, and over $15 million in social return on investment (SROI). We also fulfill our mission through sharing our mission and model with other recyclers and organizations. To date thirteen, replicate our model in the US and abroad. In 2020 Blue Star’s model was chosen for a project to bring workforce inclusion training to 10 other e-Stewards certified electronics recyclers in the US through a grant from Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation and the May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust.
Blue Star has earned several prestigious awards, including: Colorado Nonprofit of the Year, Colorado Social Enterprise of the Year, Colorado Recycler of the Year, Colorado Social Venture of the Year, the Samaritan Award from the Colorado Ethics in Business Alliance, and the 24-Karat Award from the CDPHE Environmental Leadership Program. I have been awarded Colorado Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Small Businessperson of the Year, ARC Employer of the Year, Citizen Diplomat of the Year, and Recycler of the Year.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
A few years ago I served on a panel at a University of Denver business school event. During the Q&A session that followed, a woman asked what my greatest asset was for founding Blue Star Recyclers. After giving it some thought, I had to admit my greatest asset was actually ignorance. Had I known anything about electronics recycling of employing of people with disabilities – I either wouldn’t have done it, or would have done it wrong. Why? Because I had no idea what I was doing, and had I followed conventional wisdom with either element, I don’t think we would have made it. We also had the great fortune of a DEFINED PURPOSE for existence. Which is, everything we do MUST help create more jobs for people with disabilities or we simply don’t do it. That keeps the tip of your arrow pretty sharp, and it has allowed us to grow and thrive in the face of adversity.
So, what made Blue Star Recyclers grow was a commitment to learn the best way to recycle electronics and employ people with disabilities – and avoiding the pitfalls plaguing the recycling industry and disability services sector. We did this by running Blue Star as a business, and even though we were doing something good – we made everything we did accountable to the bottom line. This kept us agile and lean, and open-minded to best practices that we and others were discovering. And, discarding any practice that didn’t produce desirable results – quickly! We also had the great good fortune to produce significant impact on three fronts – Social, Environmental, and Economic. This enabled us to create something of a three-sided brochure for people to view. If you were passionate about the environment you can recycle with Blue Star to assure electronic waste is recycled ethically, of which less than 20% is recycled worldwide. If you are passionate about social outcomes, you can recycle with Blue Star to help support meaningful and competitive employment for people with disabilities facing unemployment rates of 80-90%. If you are interested in financial and economic sustainability, you can recycle or support Blue Star to produce over $16 million in social return on investment (SROI), because when people with disabilities are working everyone benefits financially. That means for every dollar spent with or donated to Blue Star, we produce a return of $2.50.
This is not to say it has all been smooth sailing. In late 2014 our industry hit bottom and the commodity materials we recycle suffered huge devaluations, while processing fees on other materials skyrocketed. By January 2015 we realized our recycling fees didn’t come close to covering our operating costs. Coming within a month of going under, I had to send a note to all of our customers and let them know we had to increase their rates by 40%. We were already on the high side, so I fully expected many of our customers to bolt. Well, it was then I learned the real power of social enterprise. Not one single account left us. While they didn’t like paying more, they preferred to stick with us and support our mission. This was finally proof positive for me that people don’t just want to spend their money… they want to USE their money to produce positive impact.
Blue Star Recyclers – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Blue Star Recyclers is an e-Stewards certified recycler of electronic waste. e-Stewards is the most stringent, third-party audited, environmental, health, and safety certification available. This is very important to us, as there are many recyclers in the US who say one thing and do another. Our certification enables us to prove we do.
Our earned income streams include front-end recycling fees, resale of components and commodity materials, event management fees, and consulting services to partners who wish to replicate Blue Star’s mission and model. Blue Star Recyclers is an odd duck on a few different fronts. First, even though we are a 501c3 nonprofit organization, our earned income covers most of all of our operating expenses. This enables us to use grants, individual donations, and corporate sponsorships to expand operations and purchase equipment. Moreover, our average annual administrative costs are under 5% – even though we utilize very few volunteers. Both of these metrics are rare in the nonprofit world. I think we are best known for producing the most favorable outcomes through the recycling of unwanted electronics. Essentially, we transform a potentially hazardous waste stream into positive environmental, social, and economic outcomes. This has fueled our growth and allowed us to become the largest electronics recycler based in Colorado, with the most employees and locations (Denver, Colorado Springs, Boulder, and the Roaring Fork Valley).
What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
That’s hard to say, because those moments seem to occur daily at Blue Star. Perhaps my favorite experience at Blue Star is when we hire a person with a disability who seems like a longshot. I’ll meet them and think there is just no way that person will be able to master the tasks of the job we’ve hired he/she to do. Then a few months goes by and I stop by their workstation to chat, and I am greeted with what appears to be an entirely different human being. They are focused and engaged, standing taller, and light up like a Christmas tree. I think that is the power of purpose for a human being. It also turns out the so-called experts were wrong about how to build self-esteem. It doesn’t come from me patting you on the head and telling you how great you are. It comes from you DOING something, DOING it well, and contributing to your team. When we do that day in and day out something happens to our insides, and we know deep-down we are of value, and no one can take that from us. Unfortunately, because of the way the traditional disability services sector is funded, all the emphasis is on the deficit (diagnosis), because it is the basis for how the government reimburses them for providing services. So, they focus on what is wrong with a person. Since we receive no funding from the government and have no investment in the deficits/diagnoses of our employees, we focus on what is RIGHT with that person. The mother of one of our first four employees said it best… “My son has depended on everyone for everything his whole life (food, shelter, the works), but for four hours a day Blue Star depends on him.”
The reason I want to keep growing is to make sure any family with a child with a disability doesn’t have to move to Colorado to help their child experience the power of having a real job. Maybe the thing I’m most proud of is this year we have five locations and 15 partners replicating our model in the US and abroad, and while we may not be everywhere yet… we’ll get there one way or another.
- Computers are free to recycle at Blue Star Recyclers
- Most other electronics have a recycling fee of .59 cents per pound
- Along with walk-in service at our five locations we can pick up at businesses and homes
- Address: Blue Star Recyclers
Denver Recycling Operations
953 Decatur Street
Denver, CO 80204
- Website: www.bluestarrecyclers.com
- Phone: 303.534.1667
- Email: email@example.com
Photo of Bill Morris and Tony Fagnant, Co-Founders of Blue Star Recyclers receiving Samaritan Award
Photo of Jack Ryan and Ian Sabar at our Denver Recycling Operations
Photo of Leigh Schilling at our Colorado Springs Recycling Operations
Photo of Dominic Dunbar at our Colorado Springs Recycling Operations
Photo of Kian Phair at our Denver Recycling Operations