By: Jim Johnson
October 10, 2013
CHICAGO — The folks at MRC Polymers Inc. need the folks at Spectrum Vocational Training Agency. And the folks at Spectrum need the folks at MRC.
And at the end of the workday, hard-to-recycle plastics get diverted from landfills.
MRC Polymers recycles a range of plastics, but there's one particular stream of material that holds a special place for the company.
That's because about 65 Spectrum clients with varying degrees of developmental disabilities get to earn a paycheck by tackling the challenge of separating polycarbonate DVDs from their polypropylene packaging.
It's a hands-on, labor-intensive task that if performed in a traditional work atmosphere wouldn't make financial sense.
"This is a job that they can be successful at. And it gives them the opportunity to earn a paycheck. And, of course, we all know how that is a feel-good thing, to actually see some sort of result from the work that you've been doing," said Nicole Fox, program manager for the developmental training work services program at Spectrum.
Spectrum is the adult day services division of non-profit Little Friends Inc. of Naperville, Ill., which serves people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Spectrum workers, at the facility in Downers Grove, Ill., are paid by the piece, allowing them to experience the pride of earning some extra money.
MRC, in turn, gains access to a stream of recyclables that would otherwise be difficult to capture.
The Chicago-based custom compounder has recycled previously separated polycarbonate discs for years. But the partnership with Spectrum allows the firm to take in complete DVD packages that don't make it to market.
"They are misprints, overages, mistakes in some way," said Jennifer Brown, marketing and business development analyst at MRC Polymers.
"They are able to prepare the materials to be recycled. They separate the paper inserts and they separate the discs from the cases because they are different types of plastic. So it's a pretty simple and enjoyable task," Brown said.
And once every two weeks, it gets really, really loud at Spectrum.
"You can come here every other Friday and hear them screaming. They are very proud of the work that they are doing. They are proud of the money they are earning," Fox said.
Nobody has every complained to her about how much they make, whether it's $2 or $200 or more, she said.
"There still is that sense of pride that I worked and I am getting paid and it's a sense of ownership of what they've done. So it's very exciting around here every other Friday," Fox said.
Spectrum clients working with MRC have become so interested in recycling that some now bring in recyclables from their own homes as well. There's even a "green team" of clients that promote recycling throughout the building.
"It's something they are familiar with and it teaches them about recycling in general," Brown said.
MRC Polymers uses what the company calls a proprietary washing process to remove paints and coatings from the DVDs, which are then grinded and sold for reuse in a variety of products, including automobile parts.
Dave Lawson, MRC operations director, said a recent get-together with company personnel and Spectrum clients helped reinforce the importance of the partnership.
Lawson said he was the "sprinkle guy" at an ice cream social that was part of the partnership's fifth anniversary celebration. His job: putting sprinkles on the ice cream. And his visit: inspirational, he said.
"We're probably not making any money doing that. We're probably losing a little," he said about the work with Spectrum. "It reinforces that feeling that there's more to business than making money."
Working with Spectrum, the operations director said, transcends the profit-and-loss statement. "I don't care if it's good for business," he said.
"It makes us want to find more opportunities like that," Brown said.
Spending some time with the people at Spectrum also provided a much-needed perspective on life, Lawson added. "I think we need that every now and then."
Spectrum clients typically sort DVDs between two and three weeks each month as the operation also does work for other customers, Fox said. Clients work around a large table, separating the different materials into barrels. Staff double-checks the work to make sure there is no cross-contamination. A typical workday is about 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
"Just like a regular job for anybody else. We come in. We do our job. We take our lunch break. We come back. We do our job. And then we go home," Fox said.
"They are learning to differentiate between the pieces that come to us. They are learning what it is to recycle, what the plastic is going for, how it's going to be melted down. We kind of go over that with them every now and then just kind of as a refresher," she said.
"It's cool to see someone really love working and also get meaning and purpose out of it. And also get a paycheck. That's kind of an exciting thing for someone who wouldn't otherwise be able to work," Brown said.
"It kind of reminds you that work is just not work," Lawson said. "It should be fun. Otherwise, it's just a job. There has to be more to this stuff."