COLUMBIA — Donning a pair of safety glasses and earplugs, Robert Barnes throws a handful of loose CDs from Sara Evans and The Beach Boys onto a conveyor belt.
The disks reach the grinder. The noise is thunderous as they are ground into small chips of shimmering plastic and sifted into a large bag at the end of the machine.
The chips look more like material for an art project instead of the new plastic it will soon become.
Barnes is an employee at ACT Works, the recycling program of Alternative Community Training, an organization that provides jobs to those with disabilities. Since 1991, the program has been collecting and refurbishing electronic equipment such as videotapes and audiocassettes, computer disks and jewel cases for recycling and resale. But changes in technology have created a dying market for these materials, leaving the program in search of different recycling methods.
“Most of ACT Works focus was to reuse videotapes in the past, but now we’re focusing on fully recycling,” Jim Williams, ACT Works’ program manager, said.
Williams said the organization had been sending a lot of its intact plastic items to China to be recycled. In May 2007, the organization was told its buyers in the Far East were no longer interested.
“We knew we couldn’t find anyone else to buy them,” Williams said. “The best opportunity for us was to buy a granulator and market the granulated plastic ourselves.”
A $50,000 grant from the Missouri Market Development Program financed ACT Works’ purchase of the grinding machinery and allowed it to expand the list of items it accepts and refocus recycling efforts. The development program is under the umbrella of the Environmental Improvement and Energy Resources Authority, a quasi-governmental agency that funds projects with tax-exempt bonds and notes. June 11 was the first day the employees fed CDs and DVDs into the granulator and collected more than 1,000 pounds of ground plastic in a large sack donated by the local Quaker Oats factory.
In the near future, ACT Works plans to add a machine that will be able to disassemble and grind video and audio cassette tapes, a service that’s not offered by any other recyclers in mid-Missouri.
“We have 1 million video tapes to take apart,” Williams said.
Before, ACT Works was receiving between 3 and 6 cents a pound for the raw plastic sent to China. Now, each bag of ground CDs and DVDs can fetch 45 to 65 cents per pound, depending on the market. For an average bag of the polycarbonate plastic, which holds 1,300 pounds, profits could reach more than $800.
There are 72 people with disabilities who work in the ACT Works program. With nearly 25 individuals on the employment waiting list, Williams said he hopes they are able to create more jobs with the addition of the new machinery.
“We’ve already had about five to six people feeding plastic materials into the machine,” Williams said.
According to Williams, nearly 70 percent of those employed by the program would not be able to find a job elsewhere because of their low level of productivity. In addition to providing a job, ACT Works encourages, but does not require, employees to move on to careers outside the program.
“One of our goals is not to keep them in this facility,” Williams said. “If they want to go to the community, we support that opportunity for them.”
Kevin Wilson, 38, has been working with ACT for eight years.
Before that, he had “hopped, skipped and jumped off of jobs” from one employer to another he said.
Wilson said that he is content working at ACT Works.
“They haven’t booted me out for being here so long,” he said.
Billy Selsor, 23, said he began working with the organization after he was fired from his first job at a dog kennel after high school. After an hourlong interview with ACT Works, Selsor said, it was determined he had a high level of productivity.
Today he works with the new machinery, putting the disks on the conveyor belt, though he said he often volunteers to do other tasks.
“Here I get to do a lot of lifting, and it’s teaching me to listen to my bosses and respect others,” Selsor said. “I never really had that.”
Williams, a former executive at a computer software company, said he finds a lot of good things that happen at ACT Works.
“It’s always a great feeling seeing a person learn a new task,” he said. “Their paychecks may not be as big as somebody’s, but they’re just as excited to get one.”