Hickenlooper gets out of Denver, visits Springs’ businesses

Dave Fry, Blue Star Recyclers shift supervisor, gives Gov. John Hickenlooper a tour of the Colorado Springs plant, which recently became a nonprofit social enterprise.

Gov. John Hickenlooper visited the Blue Star Recyclers plant in Colorado Springs Thursday saying he needs to get out of Denver and see what is going on in the rest of the state.

Blue Star was founded in 2008 to recycle electronics waste: old computers, keyboards, printers and televisions. In May, the company transformed itself into a nonprofit corporation, making it eligible for government grants and money from private foundations to cover operating costs and pay for expansion. Its mission transformed too. Now, its No. 1 priority is to employ people with disabilities.

“I think it’s really important what is going on here,” said Jennifer Taylor, Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corporation vice president of local industry.

Tony Fagnant, owner of Qualtek Manufacturing and Blue Star Recyclers board member, led the governor on tour of the facility, where employees break down electronics and sell individual parts. Fagnant and his wife Mary own the facility that houses Blue Star Recyclers.

Electronics recycling is an emerging industry, but it is growing fast. In 2006 there were an estimated 500 such companies across the country. By 2010 there were more than 1,200, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers.

For Blue Star Recyclers, there is more in play than the bottom line, Andy O’Riley director of materials processing explained to the governor. The company employs developmental disabled adults — a population with more than an 80 percent unemployment rate, O’Riley said. It’s a business model Blue Star is looking to replicate in other Colorado communities, including LaJunta and Canon City, he said.

Blue Star employs 10 disabled adults through a partnership with Community Intersection, a nonprofit group that offers services to adults with developmental disabilities. Developmentally disabled adults have an aptitude for taking apart computers, O’Riley said. The 10 disabled employees each work 20 hours a week dismantling computers and separating the pieces for reuse. They dismantle about 70 computers a day.

“The cool thing is I’ve known some of these guys for five or six years,” O’Riley said. “They are different now. This is a population desperate to demonstrate value.”

The dismantled pieces — plastic, copper wiring and circuit boards — that Blue Star sells. Some realize just pennies on the pound but high-value circuit boards, which contain gold or silver, yield close to $5 a pound.

Blue Star officials estimate their agency is capturing about 15 percent of the electronics recycling in Colorado Springs, about 70 percent of it from business and institutions. To date, the agency has recycled 1.5 million pounds of electronics equipment and kept that waste from going to landfills, O’Riley said.

Hickenlooper, who also visited Elope Inc, the makers of funny hats and accessories, called the Blue Star Recyclers operations impressive. “It’s both heartwarming and inspirational,” he said.