A Riverside, Calif., program for people with severe developmental disabilities recycles monthly about 36,000 pounds of polyethylene film garment bags and 28,000 pounds of polypropylene and polystyrene clothing hangers. Alan Schwerdt, program development director for Ability Counts Inc., said the effort spotlights the abilities and value of people with disabilities.
Schwerdt and Executive Direc-tor Roger Cox founded the local, nonprofit agency in 1980 to provide meaningful vocational training and employment for those who have had disabilities from birth, or who were disabled be-fore age 18.
Now, at several bus-served buildings in a five-mile area, Ability Counts has 44 support and instructional staff members guiding about 300 employees in up-grading their skills, which can lead to employment in private industry. The employees' disabilities include blindness and hearing impairment.
For the 2-year-old recycling program that employs 88, Ability Counts picks up three or four Dumpsters of garment bags and hangers from consolidation points for Nordstrom Inc.'s 22 department stores in Southern California each week. Nordstrom donates the bags and hangers.
``At first, the program seemed very costly, but after the pilot program completed a year, the benefits literally jumped out at us,'' said Michelle Tippings, Nordstrom industrial engineer in Ontario, Calif. ``We reduced our purchase of new hangers by over four million and helped create employment opportunities at Ability Counts, giving Nordstrom corporate a net savings.''
Some Ability Counts recyclers use a Marathon V-6030 high-density baler. They compact the plastic garment bags and crank out about 40 bales each month. The baler, acquired in late 1994 for $12,000, ``has paid for itself multifold,'' Schwerdt said.
A number of blind workers learned how to separate polyure-thane foam from the plastic hangers and were catalysts in developing a procedure to separate PP and PS hangers.
``It was necessary to develop a sorting procedure that allowed sightless workers to join others at the 25-foot-long sorting conveyer belt,'' Schwerdt said. ``We found that, by banging hangers on the metal side rails of the belt, those of styrene give off a high-pitch clicking sound and those of polypropylene give off a low-pitch thumping sound.''
Before the ``sound test,'' contamination ran as high as 20 percent, ``but now our purity is up to 99 percent,'' Schwerdt said.
In November, the organization paid $20,000 for the Recycling Machinery Services conveyer belt and a 1992 Nelmore G1616 grinding machine.
``Now, we have the capacity to grind 1,000 pounds an hour,'' Schwerdt said.
``Each individual should be able to sort 125 pounds of hanger material an hour, and we have in-structors to work with them to increase productivity,'' Schwerdt said. A $5-an-hour cap translates into a standard hanger payment of 4 cents per pound.
Previously, Ability Counts sold the hangars unground, ``but we didn't get the price,'' Schwerdt said. ``Now, we ship the bales and gaylords to Talco Plastics Inc. in Whittier.''
Plastics recycler Talco helped develop the program.
``We believe in the program, which improves the environment and helps disabled people,'' said John Shedd, Talco president.
Ability Counts received $2.3 million in 1995 from private industry and California Rehabili-tation Department's vocational training services and has a $2.6 million budget this year.
``We're moving toward self-sufficiency,'' Schwerdt said.
The private sector supplied 15 percent of revenues in 1994 and 35 percent last year. The agency's 1996 private-industry goal is 40 percent, about $1 million.
Rich Williams, a habilitation specialist with the state, monitors programs at Ability Counts in Riv-erside and San Bernardino counties, checking monthly on hours charged and compliance issues.
``More than 30 percent of the employees move eventually from these programs into supported private employment,'' Williams said. ``They have the ongoing help of a job coach.''
Recently, Ability Counts began receiving hangers from the distribution center of Investcorp SA's Saks Fifth Avenue in Ontario, Calif., through the courtesy of On-tario cardboard recycler Main-street Fiber. Negotiations with the Federated Cos. Macy's Broadway organization in Los Angeles could provide additional volume.
``We must double our output to get into the profit mode,'' Schwerdt said. ``Presently, we are approaching the break-even point.''