From Recovery To Recycling

Posted on Oct 1, 2010 :: Green Business
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

photo courtesy of STEP Industries.

“Recycling? Yes, we’re into recycling!” says Michelle Devine Giese, president of the organization since last fall. “We’ve been ‘recycling’ people – I myself am an example – for 28 years, and now we’re recycling computers.”

The Neenah-based, not-for-profit organization had been searching for a line of work that it could control that could be fill-in for its workers so they would not be so dependent on contracts from outside vendors, which often fluctuate. The more they looked into it, the smarter it seemed.

When they realized that the Wisconsin Electronics Recycling Law (which went into effect on Sept. 1) would cause consumers to search for convenient ways to dispose of their old electronics, they decided to move full-speed ahead.

STEP Industries, which provides transitional employment for men and women recovering from alcohol and other drug addiction, was founded in the fall of 1982 by a Kimberly-Clark executive who was himself in recovery. He identified a dual opportunity: it was difficult for recovering people to find employment, and his own company had a need for contract packaging, customized assembly, folding and gluing work that could best be done by hand. So, he created an organization that has grown to serve 70 to 100 people at any one time.

Fast-forward to Aug. 20, 2010. STEP Industries hosts an electronic equipment drive at Fox Valley Technical College as a trial run with consumers, not knowing what to expect. The drive nets three semi-trailers – about 25 tons – of CPUs, monitors, printers, fax machines and scanners. And the new venture is underway.

Grants from the J. J. Keller Foundation and Menasha Corporation Foundation have funded training and other start-up costs to help launch the program. Part of the planning involved consulting with an Illinois non-profit that already has a business model for this work.

Dan Haak, operations manager at STEP, expects that six to eight people will be involved with the component demanufacturing process on a regular basis. With a CPU, for example, they will unscrew and remove the case; shred the hard drive; separate the steel, aluminum, and plastic components into bins; divide the wiring into low- and high-grade; and separate circuit boards and processor chips. Team members will use similar processes for monitors, printers, scanners and fax machines. STEP does not yet accept televisions, video game systems, DVDs or VCRs.

“We have the work teams in place to take the equipment apart correctly and prepare it for either recycling or disposal,” says Devine Giese. “And, we’re taking all the necessary safety precautions: gloves, safety glasses, aprons, etc. to make sure our people are safe and protected.”

Given his operations perspective, Haak appreciates the nature of the work.

“Most of our traditional work has been contract project work that is often short-term,” says Haak. “In fact, in today’s economy, there’s less contract work than we wish there was. So, it’s great to have regular, steady work for a group of our people. We also have the flexibility to put more people on the line as needed.”

“We are excited to have a project that is ‘ours,’” Devine Giese adds. “We’ve created this from the bottom up and our employees are excited to get in on the ground floor of a new venture. And we are so pleased to be providing our people with another way to build their employment resumés and to be making a contribution to the environment at the same time.”