Nonprofit electronics recycler has support but no space in Roaring Fork Valley
Bill Morris thought all the boxes were checked when he looked into expanding his nonprofit electronics recycling business into the Roaring Fork Valley.
What he discovered was a shortage of warehouse space, something he believes is partially due to the marijuana industry’s rapid growth.
Morris is founder of Blue Star Recyclers, which opened its first facility in Colorado Springs in 2009, then expanded to Denver in 2014 and Boulder in 2016. It recently opened in the Chicago area. The company specializes in hiring workers who are disabled, mainly people on the autism spectrum.
He figures the business is a classic win-win situation — with extra wins thrown in. People who are typically overlooked in the workforce gain meaningful employment, governments save on social welfare costs, consumers are provided with a place to recycle mountains of cellphones, laptops, televisions, monitors, small appliances and household electronics that get discarded every year, and landfills don’t fill as fast.
Morris started looking at the Roaring Fork Valley and Interstate 70 corridor in Garfield and Eagle counties as a potential expansion market because the area is growing and residents tend to make an effort to recycle.
“It’s always been looked at as a hippy-dippy thing to do,” he said, “but it’s just good business sense.”
About 100,000 people in Boulder recycle 1 million pounds of electronics with Blue Star per year. He figures the area from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and from Vail to Rifle would produce a similar recycling rate per capita.
The Rotary Clubs of the region learned of Blue Star’s ambitions and seven of them combined to provide financial backing.
“Nobody remembers when the Rotary Clubs have come together on a project,” said Debbie Wilde, who will become president of the Glenwood Springs Rotary Club next year.
“It was exciting on a lot of fronts,” Wilde said of the Blue Star concept, pointing to the ecological, social and economic benefits. “All of those things made it not a (big) risk.”
The Rotary Clubs that participated are Aspen, Snowmass Village, Carbondale, Mount Sopris, Glenwood, Sunset Rotary of Glenwood Springs and Rifle.
While efforts are made to recycle some electronics, such as at the Pitkin County Landfill, the assessment was Blue Star could do it most effectively. Pitkin County Landfill awarded a contract to Blue Star. The city of Aspen soon followed with its own pledge.
“In our valley, it’s a missing part,” Wilde said. “That is kind of our bugaboo.”
Morris figured he would initially employ six workers in the Roaring Fork Valley. He said he has made arrangement to work with Roaring Fork High School to teach new skills to students who are autistic. He noted that Ascendigo, a nonprofit that works with people on the autism spectrum, is also based in Carbondale, so there are opportunities to add workers should operations expand in the Roaring Fork Valley.
He stressed that his nonprofit isn’t hiring people out of sympathy or philanthropy. People with autism thrive in settings where there is a repetitive task and a procedure to follow, he said. Blue Star employs 40 disabled people in Colorado with 28 of them on the autism spectrum. The company has found their absenteeism rate to be extremely low and worker safety to be high, he said.
Blue Star stresses on its website that it considers its workers “disAbled,” with the emphasis on abled.
Additional grants for Blue Star’s expansion into the Roaring Fork Valley pledged from Pitkin County Healthy Communities, the Western Colorado Community Foundation and the Daniels Fund in addition to Rotary.
Morris said he had “$200,000 in the bank” to fund a startup in the Roaring Fork Valley. He just needed a warehouse.
“We started shopping about a year ago and came close a couple of times,” he said.
That’s when he learned that trends that have molded large metro markets are also sweeping the Roaring Fork Valley. Warehouse space is at a premium, in large part because marijuana growers have flooded the market.
“Marijuana growers in 2015 went out and purchased (or leased) just about every square foot of warehouse space,” Morris said. “They pay cash.”
That’s driven up rents and sales prices. Blue Star cannot compete when space becomes available.
“We’re a nonprofit,” he said.
There is a chance Pitkin County will have space in a building come available in Carbondale in 2021, according to Morris. At a minimum, Blue Star needs space for the next year. He said the company could live with 1,500 square feet of working space, as long as it came with loading docks suitable for tractor-trailers that would be picking up electronics on a regular basis. He is either looking for space as a sole tenant or to share with another operator.
“The frustrating part is we just can’t find a building,” Morris said. “What I’m really praying for is something to pop up in Carbondale.”
Anyone with information on available warehouse space in the Carbondale area can contact Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wilde said she hopes Blue Star can locate space before Rotary’s next fiscal year begins in July. The ability to carry over the funding from the seven clubs and the district to the next fiscal year is uncertain, she said.
She is optimistic that greater knowledge of Blue Star’s needs for a warehouse can shake loose some options.
“It hasn’t been out there in the public,” Wilde said.